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.
"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.