Fessin' Up

Dashboard Confessional takes community spirit to the Limits

I have a confession. I've never followed Dashboard Confessional. Mea culpa.

I recently attended the first gig in the national tour to support Dashboard's fifth album, at City Limits, a sold-out show for the national phenomenon that began in Boca. Promoters were even having trouble getting press and family into the show. Prepared to report on the event from the puddled parking lot, I shared my plans with Dashboard's P.R. people. I had tickets an hour later and great expectations. Jockeying for position among hordes of pubescent fans wasn't one of them.

MTV, Madison Square Garden, the Spiderman 2 soundtrack: These were landmarks on the journey to success for local hero and national heartthrob Chris Carrabba, who even without his band calls himself Dashboard Confessional. But it was the teenaged fanbase that fueled the Boca boy's ride to the top. When the doors to the Delray Beach club opened, teenaged girls sprinted across an empty club to stake their claims by a dark stage and then vibra ted with enthusiasm for hours while they waited for the show — or so I was told. When I arrived fashionably late, even though John Ralston's band was playing, the girls still had Carrabba's name on their lips.

"He's beautiful, and everyone loves him!" gushed an 11-year-old.

"I wanna have his babies!" one pretty 15-year-old squealed.

No sense in reminding the little sluts that their boyishly good-looking idol is a married 32-year-old. That only resulted in brazen "We can still look!" defenses and "He doesn't look that old" dismissals.

So engrossed in their idol, many fans stood with their backs to the stage, oblivious to Ralston's heartfelt outpourings. Circles of kids, self-segregated by gender, entertained themselves with their cell phones in the smoky, remodeled industrial space despite the exertions of Ralston, the Lake Worth musician whose look had degenerated from "boy next door" to " '70s hippie" while immersed in recording his second album. For some, music comes first.

"Yes, the drummer is very handsome," Ralston acknowledged diplomatically between songs to the girls swooning for baby-faced Jeff Snow.

Snow had a few years on the 29-year-old Ralston, but he didn't look it — and that's what it was all about to this audience, a generation, as one girl pointed out, that had "grown up on Disney," where performers "have to sing, dance, and look good doing it." And, of course, even better if they could heighten the melodrama of young love in song.

Carrabba had it all. With lyrics like "My heart is yours to fill or burst, to break or bust, or wear as jewelry" (from "Hands Down"), he'd won fans like best friends 15-year-old Alex McCoy and 14-year-old Katie Northrop, who counted among their Carrabba favorites "Vindicated," which was catapulted to number two on the charts by the Spiderman 2 soundtrack. Having bonded over things like "dancing like nobody's watching" and a shared interest in boys, these BFFs had been together since seventh grade — practically a lifetime to them — and were now chaperoned by Michelle Laskowski, who had also brought her family to the show.

The Laskowski family was introduced to Carrabba's music when Michelle's brother-in-law worked with Carrabba, pre-fame, at Boca Raton's JC Mitchell Elementary. The rock star was once director of a special-ed after-school program there. "The whole family loves him," Michelle told me, so much that at a recent family luau, everyone was singing along to his songs. Her favorite? "Screaming Infidelities."

Her husband, Tim, shrugged when I raised an eyebrow in his direction. "I don't pay attention to the words," he said dismissively, ready to refocus on Ralston, who was just finishing a powerful set with a Neil Young cover. But the Laskowski family exemplified how the audience felt personally invested in Carrabba's success.

"It's cool that he's a local," 15-year-old Katie Mogell told me as she twirled a strand of curly red hair around her finger. She also found it "cool" that Carrabba was playing solo again, since that was "how he started on MTV." In fact, he'd "started" with another band, Further Seems Forever, long before that MTV Unplugged gig, but she was right: Dashboard Confessional had started as a one-man show. "His lyrics are an inspiration to me," she said.

Mogell's friends from Temple Beth El also found Carrabba inspirational. Taylor Urban, a waif with eyes rimmed in black, had been inspired to part with the money she'd been saving for a skimboard to pay for this show. And a down-to-Earth Arielle Johnston told me she had begun taking guitar lessons; she'd already learned "Hands Down" and "Jamie" after bringing her iPod to her lessons so her instructor could write down the chords, she said.

Talking to teenagers was hard work. Most of the girls responded with just a couple of giggled words and phrases, and every answer required the corroboration of at least one friend. The boys were comparatively incommunicative. On the plus side, a largely un­deraged crowd meant I didn't have much competition at the bar, which is where many of the adult fans congregated. At a high-top table, I found high school sweethearts Francesca Muccido and Trevor Wernisch. For these recent college grads, the show was a nostalgic tribute."This was the first concert we went to together," Muccido said. Neither could remember the main act that night. Even though Dashboard was just getting started, they'd made a lasting impression on the couple.

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