Onward, Chrisís Soldiers

Sadness is joy. Vulnerability is power. Dashboard Confessional is already bigger than Jesus ó the world just doesnít know it yet

"So this is odd, the painful realization that all has gone wrong/And nobody cares at all," sighs Chris Carrabba.

"And nobody cares at all," answers the gentle children's choir of the crowd.

What the hell? Seven hundred fans have arrived at Millenium, a dance club in Pompano Beach -- on a Tuesday night, no less -- to show how much they do care. Ever seen a band with die-hard fans? This is like that, only more so. It's nearly messianic.

Those managing to avoid being touched by the phenomenon that is Dashboard Confessional might ask if the band is local or national. It's both. (See "Chris Craft" by Tom Bowker, August 23, 2001.) The 26-year-old Carrabba engineered the ultimate triumphant homecoming show at the epicenter of his fan base. He's been headlining a national tour for the past six weeks with openers Seville (also his backing band) and Further Seems Forever(the group he quit to form Dashboard), bringing along the Rocking Horse Winner (vocalist Jolie Lindholm sings backup on the latest Dashboard album) for this fanatical finale/cast party. No wonder Carrabba has christened this the "Pompano on the go" tour, staffed by "everyone I've ever skipped school with."

Friends and relatives filled Millenium and its parking lot by 8 p.m.; back by the bar, a handwritten sign plastered between the Dashboard Confessional T-shirts and hoodies reads: "NO I DON'T KNOW WHERE CHRIS IS." Carrabba was actually aboard his gleaming, four-star-hotel bus, where an assortment of smiling well-wishers, hangers-on, wannabe groupies, and FOC (friends of Chris) congregated. The door opened, and he scooted through a shrub to knock on the club's back door; it opened for him (something he's probably getting used to by now), and he joined his old band on stage for its final song. Further Seems Forever singer Jason Gleason had spent the past 45 minutes doing his best Carrabba imitation; the audience thrummed to life at the sight of the actual pint-sized superstar.

Now, as bassist Dan Bonebrake, drummer Mike Marsh, and guitarists Mike Stroud plus Dan Hoerner from Sunny Day Real Estate wait respectfully outside the back door, Carrabba skirts around the screams as he starts the show on an acoustic note with "The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most," the title track from the new Dashboard Confessional album, which has already scanned 120,000 sales since its release in March.

The devotees closest to the stage -- and more sprinkled throughout the club -- sing every single word with Carrabba. See, Carrabba's like a ship on the ocean. And his flock, well, their cargo is love and devotion. He never has to utter a sound. When he pulls back from the mic, it's with the confidence of a stuntman jumping off a building -- he's never in any real danger, as the small, hushed voices (mostly female) fill the void every time. Pumped with power, Carrabba milks these magic moments, the intensity of which should forever silence any artist who's ever cajoled a crowd into singing along. These kids wouldn't have stopped singing if they'd had guns pointed at them.

Against the back wall, a tall bodybuilder stands behind his girlfriend, who doesn't notice as he tilts his head back and closes his eyes to sing along with "The Brilliant Dance": "You'd like to think that you were invincible/ Well, weren't we all once/ before we felt loss for the first time?" The song connects like a hard right, followed by a comforting hand on the shoulder. This pain and sorrow the kids cannot resist, penetrating tough guys' hard exteriors like bunker-busters.

From the grassiest of roots, Dashboard Confessional quickly became a home-grown patch of sod that was healthy and fit, a place where Carrabba's first followers could sit on the floor of Ray's Downtown Blues and sing along, then hang out and talk to Chris afterward. Then it multiplied into an acreage that now requires a crew of caretakers and maintenance people. It's now a huge, choreographed, professional rock show, with moves straight out of the secret Bono/Springsteen playbook. It feels real and surreal, and the ride has happened so fast, this year in which Carrabba's had almost every single thing go his way. It's bound to change a person. It's so obvious what destiny awaits Carrabba, probably sooner than he wants it: MTV. Money. Thousands -- not just the hundreds he has today-- of teenage honeys singing along to his songs every single night.

His girlfriend must be scared shitless. And his managers and label must be cautious about their golden egg. Carrabba is on the brink of something huge and dangerous, something that could punt his career past the moon while placing a firewall between him and his legions of lost children. But if the strategists play this opportunity right, Carrabba is in a position to kick the door wide open for his Everyman's emo to overrun the last rap-metal fortifications, blow away the kiddie-pop fabrications, and install a new regime -- a revolution not unlike what Nirvana launched in the early 1990s.

Karen, Ari, and their friends watched firsthand as Carrabba evolved from the Vacant Andys, and they followed him through Further Seems Forever. Now, he's like an old, comfy blanket for the kids who've lived through his back catalog of heartache and loss. "He talks about true love and stuff," Karen says. "Everyone can relate to love," adds Ari.

Another halter-topped teen with a tear just beneath her eyelid waiting to trickle south bites her lip anxiously. Baby bracelets around her thin wrists spell out the names of her favorite bands: Saves the Day. Poison the Well. Carrabba's eminently femme-friendly formula is supremely basic: He's tough. But he's sensitive. Plus he's so cute. And all those tattoos!

Claudia and Jennifer, from Lake Worth, are unaware of Carrabba's previous exploits, having just stumbled upon Dashboard a few months ago. Although they spend much of the night in near-hysterics ("I begged you not to go," the two scream/sing along to "The Good Fight" with a fervor 12-year-olds would withhold for 'N Sync. "I begged you! I pleaded!"), this pair, who look to be about 18, swear they're not at the show to bed the band, although Jennifer is overheard to say, "Sex is worth a CD and a T-shirt."

"At least," says her friend.

Come on, admit it, Bandwidth chides: You're here because you're in love with Chris.

"No! It's his songs!" insists Jennifer. "If you've been hurt in a relationship, Dashboard is for you," she offers. (Why do you think they call it emo?)

"Well, he's hot too," points out devil's advocate Claudia. "But his music is so good, it doesn't matter."

Well, what if Carrabba looked like Jack Black -- would you still be this crazy about him?

"Fuck yeah!" Jennifer shouts. "He could look like a woolly mammoth -- I wouldn't give a fuck. Besides, you don't wanna fuck him -- you wanna cuddle him."

If you don't understand, just ask the little girls to explain. Some might even know where Chris is. Meanwhile, since it's 11 o'clock on a school night, Dashboard Confessional is ready to wind it up. Carrabba announces, "This is our last song, but I guess I'll see you at the mall or the record store."

Hit 'em where they live. This marketing thing, it's so easy.

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