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Music festival turns 25; Kingdom Bound poised to reach near-record crowd

Kingdom Bound, the annual Christian music and arts festival at Darien Lake Theme Park Resort, has always operated on the premise that it's no longer your older brother's Christianity -- let alone your father's.

The lineup of musical acts gets adjusted annually, and organizers typically throw in some new wrinkles -- Christian wrestlers were a big hit a few years ago -- aimed at keeping young folks interested in returning year after year.

The formula has worked for a quarter century now.

After a couple of years of slumping attendance, Kingdom Bound organizers say they're poised to reach near-record crowd numbers by the time the festival closes out its 25th year later this week.

The four-day event's single largest attendance was about 60,000 in 2005, and "we could be heading there again this year," said Donna Russo, executive director of the nonprofit group that produces the festival.

The festival has survived in spite of theme park ownership changes and the 2006 death of its co-founder, Fred Caserta, who for years was a driving force behind its success.

"All of us rallied and we said, 'OK, we've got to carry this ministry on,' " said Rick Cua, Kingdom Bound president and a longtime event performer and volunteer.

Cua said he is not surprised by the longevity of the festival, which he described as being "God-ordained."

Caserta was a booking agent for Cua, a Christian recording artist, when he launched the idea of Kingdom Bound in 1986 with musician Mike Caputy.

Cua signed on for the first Kingdom Bound in 1987 and has performed in all but one of the festivals since then.

He still remembers the snowflakes during the premier Kingdom Bound, which drew about 6,000 people on an October weekend. They were large and wet and had the audience reaching for tarps, umbrellas and anything else to cover their heads as Cua strummed the bass on the festival's lone stage.

"It was freezing, and big fat snowflakes were coming down," said Cua.

Snow hasn't been a worry since the festival was moved into the heart of summer, but on Monday, a brief midday sprinkle provided a welcome cooling for festival goers.

A crowd gathered around a fenced area where Enemy Opposition -- a group of extreme skateboarders, BMX riders and in-line skaters -- put on a display of thrilling ramp jumps to the beat of Christian metal rock.

With tattoos across his arms and chest, long brown hair, a shaggy beard and a nose ring, Neal Heary looks nothing like a traditional Christian.

But the 25-year-old in-line skater from Springville describes Enemy Opposition as a ministry.

"First and foremost, we serve Christ," said Heary, who uses his tattoos as a "way that I can witness to people who have been looked down upon."

"I just have a heart for that. Christ is for everyone," he said.

Sam Valkema, 16, traveling with a church youth group from Syracuse, watched in awe of the various flips and other maneuvers performed by the bikers and in-line skaters.

"It's amazing the tricks they pull off," he said.

But the music is the main attraction to Kingdom Bound for young people like Sam, who enjoys hard-core Christian rock.

"Although it's hard-core, it's actually got a good moral to it," he said.

Tara Warriner, 18, of Shinglehouse, Pa., was attending her fifth Kingdom Bound and said organizers do a good job of creating the concert lineups.

"Changing up the bands helps a lot, but even if they were the same bands, I would come back, because they're all good," she said. "At the concerts it's controlled fun. It's fun, but you don't have to worry about a riot or anything."

Kingdom Bound organizers take pains to find Christian performers who will fill the seats, said Cua.

Those acts have changed over the years from the likes of Cua's rock band to groups with a heavier metal sound, as well of plenty of hip-hop acts.

Although a veteran of the Christian music industry, Cua said he's not familiar with all of today's best bands and has to rely on a network of volunteers to make recommendations.

"We've got young people who are very dialed into the music scene," he said.

To connect with fans, today's Christian acts have to bring the "same bells and whistles" to their performances as big mainstream acts such as Lady Gaga use in their shows, said Russo.

"We live in a generation where no one has an attention span anymore because of technology," she said.

That means Kingdom Bound, as any event, has to evolve to stay relevant, she said.

"We're already saying, 'What are we going to do in year 26?' " added Cua.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com