It was just a man, a stool and a guitar. We’d seen this before, hadn’t we? Some coffee shop balladeer, head down, degraded voice barely registering above a whisper. An afterthought as self-important young people sipped complicated drinks and administered mercy claps. It was 2001—sincerity was out of vogue. This guy didn’t stand a chance in an atmosphere where slinksters like the Strokes or bro-brains like Limp Bizkit reigned supreme.
But something resonated about Chris Carrabba. Here was a non-threatening dude who wore his heart (and dragon and flowers, if you’ve seen his tattoos) on his sleeve and who could command an audience like a celebrity reverend. His message was love, the kind of expectant kinesis only the kids knew about. It was shouting at the top of one’s lungs for the whole world to hear that you were young, determined and heartsick.
Carrabba summarized that infinite feeling in the title track of The Swiss Army Romance (Drive-Thru Records): “It’s cool to take these chances / It’s cool to fake romances and grow up fast.”
And grow up fast we did. But there is still that bleeding in our hearts, whether we’re now married, divorced or bitterly single (or worse, listening to Adult Contemporary). Listening to Carrabba, there’s still that tinge of nostalgia that reminds us of teenage firsts. In embracing that innocence, Carrabba’s Dashboard Confessional is performing in entirety their 2000 debut, The Swiss Army Romance, on this current tour.
At the Troubadour on the first night of his three-evening stand, Carrabba didn’t miss a beat. Though the Dashboard project has ascended to lofty rock lore (penning a Spider-Man theme song, opening for Bon Jovi), here it was just the man and an acoustic guitar. In forgoing the stool, he was free to approach his adoring minions as they lovingly bellowed every one of his words back at him.
His backing acts bolstered the energy. Chris Conley (of the equally revered emo band Saves the Day) did the acoustic thing, too. Among the string of old STD favorites, he plunked out a cordial new tune, “Let It All Go”, from the forthcoming album Daybreak. The crowd was thoroughly entertained, especially a couple of girls who mused aloud that he resembled Justin Bieber.
Lady Danville drew on folksy bluegrass and piano-driven rock to round out their sound. The trio did a tasty lo-fi cover of MGMT’s “Kids” and a cheeky yokel song about wanting a woman back despite her psychosis. It was knee-slapping and toe-tapping.
There is a communal essence at Dashboard shows one cannot feel anywhere else. Since these fans, probably ages 14-21 at the time of Swiss Army’s release, memorized the lyrics and cadences like scripture, the sing-alongs were quite impressive. One could see Carrabba beam as the audience would harmonize on anthems such as “Thick as Thieves”, off 2007’s The Shade of Poison Trees (Vagrant). Empathy ran like electricity around the room.
Though Carrabba is somewhat of an emo messiah, he wasn’t impervious to the sort of catcalling usually reserved for supporting acts. He laughed off female demands of “Take off your shirt!” by countering, “It’s only the third song!” Carrabba was sweating bullets midway through the hour and a half set, which also included picks off his follow-up albums.
The groundswell of emotion peaked with his most cherished song “Hands Down”, which he explained was about the best day of his life: when he won the heart of his adolescent love, and they shared a naïve intimacy. Carrabba may be 35 now, but he still sings the power ballad as though he still were a pizza-faced Power Ranger fan.
He’s a prime example of a grown-up who never grew old, one who sees beauty in the din of our dangerous world. This is why the sweater-clad scene kids and late-Gen Xers still look to him for inspiration. His words still ring true, as long as your heart still whispers of summer days on swing sets and pure imagination.