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SXSW 2013: Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba Returns with Twin Falls

Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba returns to the spotlight at SXSW with his new project, Twin Falls. The result has fans wondering why he left his preeminent work light years behind.

“Just play some Dashboard.”

Those four words are a curse if you aren’t the leader of a band that doesn’t have the word “Dashboard” in it. These days, the sufferer of such a shadow would be Chris Carrabba, the guy at the forefront of Twin Falls, a grown-up version of his former group, Dashboard Confessional, that appeared for the first time ever in front of an audience Wednesday night at the Central Presbyterian Church as part of the week’s South By Southwest festivities in Austin, Texas.

The quote at the forefront of all this was uttered by a blond-haired, young-looking girl in the second row to her male companion after the quartet finished their second song of the evening. “That’s all I want them to play,” she continued in the same bratty undertone that seeped through her initial statement.

Unfortunately for her and her guy-dude, though, there would be no “Dashboard” throughout all of Twin Falls’ half-hour set. In fact, save for an obscene and slightly uncomfortable Weezer cover that preceded the band’s final song, everything she heard was brand new, a committed if not slightly ballsy approach from a guy who saw his career peak a decade ago as his brand of emotionally charged sing-a-longs found him playing arena-sized venues across the world.

As for Wednesday, no more than 75 people loafed into the church’s first seven to 10 rows, leaving about 60 percent of the entire venue empty, a sad sight for anyone who may have ever screamed infidelities in their life. It was all a part of an odd trend at this year’s SXSW: A larger-than-expected crop of established artists who are arguably on the downward slope of their careers are seemingly popping up left and right at an event prominently known for showcasing up-and-comers. In that sense, Carrabba was no different than, say, Ed Kowalczyk, the former lead singer of the band Live, who is set to take stages across this city over the next few days. From a different perspective, however, one could argue that it’s simply nice and encouraging to see a one-time star still chopping away at a piece of wood he hopes to one day turn into to a magnificently constructed sculpture.

Neither perspectives would be wrong, of course. While we celebrate popular artists when they are still … well … popular, we as consumers often take a certain level of subconscious glee to find them on the wrong end of a punchline to a joke about musical nostalgia. That’s why the most impressive move in the music industry isn’t becoming a bona fide star – rather, the most impressive feat in such a fickle business would be the act of becoming a bona fide star twice in one career. Nobody knows if that’s what Carrabba is aiming for this with project – a second shot a stardom -- but as for whether or not that makes the girl in the second row feel like she got her money’s worth, well …

Actually, what may have escaped Ms. Dashboard in her fit of emo-charged rage was the quality of what Carrabba and his friends have been working on. It’s not a palpable sense of maturity in songwriting, per se, any more than it is a different way to spin its wheels. Twin Falls took the acoustic-guitar, pop-rock sugar rush approach and made it the second cousin of Marcus Mumford. Yeah, there was a blast of bluegrass, but none of it felt authentic enough to appear in a Union Station – the twang felt borderline unnecessary and the up-tempo, driving feel is one that has become played out in the last several months, thanks in part to their newly adopted second cousin, mind you.

Hand claps appeared, sure, but if anything, they felt shoehorned in as an attempt to remind listeners of where the group’s lead singer came from. Anthemic choruses rang through the open and tall church ceiling, but none could truly stand toe-to-toe with anything from, say, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. And while Carrabba went for his signature sing-turn-scream from time to time, it never felt nearly as poignant as it did when he taped that now-criminally overlooked episode of MTV’s Unplugged what currently seems like light years ago.

The point is this: While Twin Falls might be a slight departure from Dashboard Confessional’s past, it doesn’t get far enough away to prove that any of what the songwriter is currently producing is substantially and/or categorically fresh (unless you consider his other well-known outlet, Further Seems Forever, but in this context, that point would be moot if for only the mere fact that Dashboard was the true genesis of that step away from one sound into another anyway). It is with that precise idiom in mind that the following question now becomes imperative to ask: What’s the point?

Why rebrand yourself as an artist if you aren’t truly embracing something that could truly be viewed as fundamentally different? Is Carrabba embarrassed of his past, or is he just aching for a new beginning? If it’s the former, what is it about those small arena days that haunts him? Yet, if it’s the latter, how far is he willing to take this project before succumbing to the very real notion that there are and will forever be a set of fans who will always define him by his earlier work? Both are scary prospects. Neither have a constructive or settling ending.

“It’s so weird to be playing these new songs in front of people,” Carrabba noted about halfway through his band’s set before adding under his breath as though he didn’t want anyone to hear, “Or maybe it’s just interesting to me.”

The thought became a microcosm for the entire exercise. While he’s always been confident and sincere on a stage with his acoustic guitar and those sleeves of tattoos, Chris Carrabba has never appeared as disconnected with an audience as he did Wednesday night. Something was missing from the air -- that communal sense with which he and his former bands have become so synonymous was almost entirely absent and a particular aura that he previously exuded now seemed warn and lost. Some could blame it on age (while he might not want to admit it, that slicked-back hair of his was forming a tiny bald spot on the right side of the back of his head and it was visible whenever he would turn around). Others could blame it on first-gig jitters (as anyone who has ever been in a band could claim, it’s not easy to get that initial live performance out of the way).

But then again, as some blond-haired, teenage-looking concert-goer might attest, maybe the most important thing that served as a discrepancy for Twin Falls Wednesday night was the simple fact that they weren’t Dashboard Confessional. And unfortunately for Carrabba and his latest group of musical friends, that’s a discrepancy that they might never be able to fully overcome.

No matter how weird. No matter how interesting.

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