In the past four years, Dashboard Confessional has had two hit records and three hit songs. They’ve been all over MTV and probably made more money than anyone in the band ever thought possible.
So it’s nice to know lead singer Chris Carrabba and Co. can still get on a barebones stage in a middle-of-nowhere gymnasium and play their hearts out like nothing’s changed.
Dashboard’s follow-up to 2003’s “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar” isn’t due out until early next year (hopefully), but Carrabba can’t seem to stay off the road for long. So this fall, he and his band have been playing random shows across the country, raising money for hurricane victims (Carrabba lives in Florida and has raised more than $150,000 for the relief effort).
Low-key is probably the best way to describe Dashboard’s stellar set of nearly two hours Saturday night at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. After all his success, Carrabba still seems as humble and fan-friendly as ever—if this aw shucks sincerity is an act then, well, he’s a really fine actor. The stage was basically a platform at one end of the gym, with two simple banks of lights and an eponymous wall hanging at the back. Refreshingly unspectacular.
And it was fitting that one of the nicest moments from Saturday night’s show was Carrabba’s down-to-earth plea for hurricane relief. In one of his frequent between-song chat sessions, he mentioned Hurricane Wilma had ripped off the roof of his Florida home. “I can afford a new roof,” Carrabba said quietly, “but there are plenty of people who can’t, so anything you can give to the Red Cross would help.” No political statement. No extended message. No posing as some sort of world savior. Just short, sweet, and to the point, with no strings attached.
The night began with Carrabba sneaking onstage to play backup guitar for his friend and opening act, John Ralston. Carrabba spent most of the set nearly off the back of the stage noodling on electric guitar, only occasionally sidling up to a microphone to help out on vocals. Again, no fanfare, no spotlights, no special treatment. You get the sense this guy is trying to keep his life as simple and normal as possible, even though circumstances around him have changed dramatically.
I’ve seen Dashboard three times now on three different tours. The first was back in the summer of 2002, just as the band was starting to make waves on MTV2. They opened for Weezer that year, and the 45-minute set was basically “Dashboard Confessional Plays Their Hits.” In the fall of 2003, they headlined a club punk tour featuring Vendetta Red, Brand New, and MxPx; for that show, D/C played a high-energy set of about 70 minutes, ripping through their more uptempo, fan-friendly numbers in order to stay with the show’s overall vibe.
Now, I finally feel like I’ve seen the show Chris Carrabba really loves to play.
On Saturday he opened with the standard rollicking “Am I Missing” but quickly slowed things down for 45 minutes of mellow yet intense acoustic numbers. Highlights were everywhere: After “Missing,” the band went into three of the four songs off the “So Impossible” EP played back-to-back-to-back; that trio led into “A Plain Morning,” a song off D/C’s debut album (back when the “group” was just Carrabba and a guitar) that had been retired for a few years.
After a relaxed “As Lovers Go” (featured on the “Shrek 2” soundtrack), Carrabba strapped on his Spider-Man-looking electric guitar, mentioning how he likes the quiet songs but now he wanted to pick the energy up a bit. That led to “Rapid Hope Loss,” a great rocker that blew me away when I heard it for the first time in 2002 and hasn’t lost any steam.
Dashboard’s trademark singalongs then went into full effect, as six of the next seven songs were from the band’s breakthrough 2001 album “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most.” We’re talkin’ home run after home run here, with “The Good Fight” leading into “Saints and Sailors,” “The Brilliant Dance,” “Screaming Infidelities,” and “Again I Go Unnoticed.”
With the crowd now in full-throated frenzy, Carrabba capitalized on that energy for the debut of a new song, “Don’t Wait,” which he said will be on next year’s record. If this is any indication of what’s to come, now I really can’t wait for this album. “Don’t Wait” is in the same vein as much of the band’s recent work, and—at least when played live—it has the epic quality of a song like “Several Ways to Die Trying.”
Following “Don’t Wait,” the rest of the band retreated behind the stage, leaving Carrabba alone in the spotlight to close the set with “The Swiss Army Romance,” a tale of college insecurity that seemed all the more appropriate given the setting. Carrabba doesn’t invoke the crowd participation as much as he used to (which is a good thing), but this D/C classic will always be a two-way street, and Carrabba still walks to the front of the stage, away from the mic, and lets the crowd close the song with him.
After a brief break, he was back onstage by himself again to open the encore with “The Best Deceptions,” another winner from “Places.” So with time running short, Carrabba closed the night with undoubtedly two of his best songs, “Vindicated” from the “Spider-Man 2” soundtrack, and “Hands Down,” originally released on the “So Impossible” EP and reworked into an electric anthem for “A Mark, …”.
“Vindicated” is without question my favorite D/C song, and the band NAILS it live. Carrabba roars into the mic like the vocals are coming up from his toes, defying logic that such a huge sound could come from such a tiny body.
“Hands Down” is like Dashboard’s version of Pearl Jam’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” For the finale, Carrabba invited Ralston and the rest of his band onstage so there were six guitars (I think) wailing away. With his mates alongside him, Carrabba has extended the ending of “Hands Down” to allow a little more jam time, but eventually everyone else slips away to leave him alone again to close the show and say good-bye amid raucous applause.
I know in my heart that Dashboard Confessional won’t go down as more than a footnote (if that) in the history of rock and roll. But they’re a nice band with an earnest, charismatic lead singer that puts on a quality, heartfelt show every night—and I happen to love their music. There’s a lot to be said for making the most out of what you’re given and not letting success go to your head. As such, Chris Carrabba is the most unlikely rock star you’re ever likely to meet (which I have, twice).
And, hey, “Vindicated” just RAWKS.
Am I Missing
The Sharp Hint of New Tears
For You To Notice …
Remember to Breathe/The Moon is Down (Further Seems Forever cover!)
A Plain Morning
Carry This Picture
As Lovers Go
Rapid Hope Loss
The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most/California (Phantom Planet cover)
Ghost of a Good Thing
The Good Fight
Saints and Sailors
The Brilliant Dance
Again I Go Unnoticed
Don’t Wait (new song)
The Swiss Army Romance
The Best Deceptions