Fessin' Up

Dashboard Confessional takes community spirit to the Limits

"I liked them better in the old days when they were smaller. They were more underground and less manufactured, less commercial," Wernisch said — though he still owned all the band's albums.

Brittni Agee and Laine Grondin had once been teenaged fans; now they were 20-something hotties who still had the hots for Carrabba. Growing up in Detroit, Grondin skipped school at 16 to see the pint-sized entertainer (he's just five-foot-five) play a coffee-shop gig. She'd moved to South Florida "for the beach" at 18, and four years later, she stood in red patent leather, peep-toe pumps on his home turf. As a local, Agee had worked at the now-defunct Spanky's when Carrabba played the Clematis Street venue with Further Seems Forever. The music made her heart soar — perhaps that's why she wore a large silver dove necklace — and she'd followed him ever since.

When Carrabba took the stage, he immediately capitalized on his local connection: "I'm Chris, and I'm from here," he said as a collective "Woo!" filled the room. "My mom and my brother are up in the balcony. There are people I've worked with, kids I've taught. I'm gonna play a song I wrote two miles from here."

"This is so intimate," Agee said as Carrabba began "The Sharp Hint of New Tears," the song whose lyrics "On the way home, this car hears my confession" inspired the band name.

Agee was not alone. Most of the audience gobbled up these wholesome hometown-boy morsels and extended their hearts like orphans with empty bowls.

Carrabba ladled it out, from pabulum like "Even when you do it alone, it's good to have a friend" to purgatives like "In New York, I'm a cocky asshole, but here, I'm shaking, I'm nervous... Are you nervous too?"

And the crowd went wild.

And it sang along, every song, every word, all the way through the show.

It was a phenomenon that devoted fan Jim MacDonald said made the experience stand out from other concerts. "Some find it annoying, but I like it," the 31-year-old loan officer said, also noting that he'd been to both band and solo shows and preferred the latter. "I've met him twice. He's a really nice person. The bigger he gets, the happier you are for him because you know he's not a dirtbag."

Up in the balcony, I found all the local indie scenesters, many of whom had followed Dashboard's career from the early days and most of whom wouldn't go on the record. One exception was TheHoneyComb.com producer and band promoter Steve Rullman. "He just threw in two lines from Legends of Rodeo — did you hear that?" Rullman said.

It made sense that Carrabba would pay his respects to Ralston and Snow's earlier musical collaboration, since the guys had all been buddies back then. Still, most in the balcony had heard these songs many times before, so they let Carrabba's music serve as their soundtrack as they milled about. From below, the crowd's voices formed a chorus as they sang along with their idol. Sometimes, Carrabba would provide the harmony to their melody. Often, he'd drop out, mouthing their cues, playing the guitar and letting them lift their voices in song. For many, it seemed a religious experience, more communal than confessional.

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