Justin Furstenfeld’s Cult of Gratitude

Blue October at the Mishawaka; photo by John Daly

Like many fans of the rock band Blue October, I was first turned onto their music back in 2006, when their big hit, Hate Me, was enjoying some serious radio play. The song stood out for frontman Justin’s Furstenfeld’s impassioned vocals and deeply personal lyrics.

Hate Me was an honest accounting of Furstenfeld’s troubles with drug addition — the story of how that addiction ravaged the most important relationships in his life, and the selflessness of those who tried to help him through it. The song even begins with an authentic voice-machine message left by his Furstenfeld’s mother, who managed to maintain an admirably optimistic tone while inquiring about her son’s well-being.

Though I’ve never faced such challenges in my own life, I know some who have. That might be the reason why, even having listened to that song at least a thousand times, the words still pull on my heartstrings whenever I hear it.

Despite my affection for Hate Me, I didn’t explore Blue October’s music much beyond that. I’d listen to their other singles whenever they’d come on the radio, and I certainly thought they were good, but for whatever reason I remained only a casual fan. I suppose my thirst (and time) for music somewhat dwindled with the work involved in raising young children with my wife.

Last summer, however, I was surprised to see that the band was scheduled to perform a concert at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre, a small outdoor venue just an hour’s drive from my house. My decision to purchase a couple of tickets had almost as much to do with the location as it did the band. The Mishawaka is a truly unique place to see a concert. The intimate setting is about 15 miles up Colorado’s Poudre Canyon — a small, rustic stage in the mountains, flanked by large pine trees and a smooth-flowing river.

My wife and I were expecting to have a good time that night, but we never could have imagined driving home afterwards, feeling as though we’d just been part of something breathtakingly inspirational. Yet, that’s exactly what ended up happening.

There are a lot of great live bands out there, and Blue October showed that they are one of them (they’re unbelievably good performers). There are a lot of phenomenal singers out there, and Justin Furstenfeld proved with his signature voice that he’s one of them. But what made the night magical was the genuine, infectious gratitude Furstenfeld has for his fans, his family, his creator, and his life.

I hadn’t realized just how far Furstenfeld had fallen earlier in that life — how long he’d battled with addiction, and the masking of his struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide. He’d gone through a bitter divorce and child-custody battle, and had even spent time in a mental institution (he still uses the moniker ‘5591’ which was his patient number).  But that’s all part of Furstenfeld’s larger story (which he speaks about candidly) that has led him to where he is now: Almost six years clean and sober, a devoted husband and father, and man of deep spirituality and faith.

Watching and listening to Furstenfeld voice the love he has for his life, and those who are a part of it, was a true testament to the power and glory of redemption.

Throughout the night, in between each song, he expressed sincere gratitude for his second lease on life — gratitude for the audience, gratitude for the venue’s owners, gratitude for his family (including his brother who’s in the band), gratitude for his career, gratitude for the beautiful setting that surrounded him, and gratitude that he was still around to enjoy it all.

I’d never seen anything like it.

At one point, he even described that night as the most wonderful moment of his life, and I don’t think anyone in attendance actually doubted that he believed it.

It’s clear that many of Blue October’s fans connect with Furstenfeld on a personal level. They’ve found a bit (or maybe more than a bit) of themselves in his music and his story, and they sing along with smiles on their faces and sometimes tears in their eyes. Unlike most concerts I’ve been to, there was an unflinching sense of positivity (and even spirituality) in the air, even during the darker songs.

I’ve talked to a few people since that concert who’ve said that — like me — they were casual fans of the band until they saw them live. Now they’re hooked. It may sound like I’m describing a cult, but what I think people get from the Justin Furstenfeld experience is rather a sense of pride, inner strength, and unifying optimism.

These things aren’t all that easy to find in our culture these days, as many of us have been conditioned to look to political figures (rather than to ourselves) for the betterment of our lives. A growing attitude of victimization has eroded away at the empowerment that comes with people taking personal ownership of their situations, and society has not benefited from that shift.

Fortunately, Furstenfeld reminds us not only that there’s a big payoff for hard work and determination (both inside and out), but that there’s virtue in being thankful for the spiritual tools that provide that strength.

Why am I writing about this now?

Furstenfeld (who has put out nearly a dozen albums over the past 20 years) is currently on a one-man “Open Book” U.S. tour, where he combines an acoustic performance with personal stories of his mistakes, his victories, and second chances. I’ve already picked up my tickets for when he passes through Colorado.

For those of you looking for a great live show, as well as something unique and uplifting, I’d highly recommend it. You can thank me for it later.