It starts with a man and his guitar. Twenty-five-year old Chris Carrabba takes to the stage and launches into the first song of his setlist. And instantly, the drove of kids watching him perform—most of whom still attend high school—start singing along in note-perfect unison. The sight and sound is one to behold, the crowd taking on the role of that best friend who can finish all your sentences.
It is the reason Carrabba performs under the name Dashboard Confessional, as opposed to moonlighting under his real name: He considers those kids singing along as much a part of the performance as himself. And this happens to him nearly every time he performs.
Well, not every time. Occasionally, there’s a town or crowd who hasn’t jumped on the Dashboard Confessional bandwagon, or embraced its two current bestsellers—2000’s Swiss Army Romance and this year’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (Vagrant). And it almost suits Carrabba just the same—one more contingency to win over.
“[A quiet crowd] is not awkward for me at all,” says Carrabba. “It’s more of a surprise. I just expect it to be a normal crowd I’ve never played before. It’s like, here’s what I have to offer you.”
Carrabba, with the help of a few backing musicians, performs his acoustic indie-pop with genuine passion. He, like Elliott Smith and Ben Lee before they plugged in, is part of the singer-songwriter new school, evoking brutal honesty and melodramatic introspection in each three-minute strummer. Call it emo-folk, punk unplugged or adolescent coffeehouse blues, but Dashboard Confessional exists almost as its own rock sub-genre, with few sound-alike or copycat acts to currently speak of. Carrabba’s fans revel in it, in that it’s-mine-and-no-one-else’s sort of way, and that helps explain why Dashboard Confessional has one of the biggest and most devoted cult followings in all of underground rock.
“I think they’re so passionate about the music because it’s so honest and they can relate,” says Carrabba. “It’s said without dressing. I think kids want that. They seem to. They feel it, bad or good. They want to share that as much as I do, I guess.”
What’s even more tremendous is how Carrabba plays his ultra-sensitive set in the middle of a punk bill and gets everyone to stand still for 40 minutes or so. Touring with acts like Face to Face, Alkaline Trio, Snapcase and H20, you wouldn’t expect the guy on stage with the acoustic guitar to go over well. But, as evidenced at one particular tour stop that Dashboard Confessional played on the otherwise punk-heavy Vagrant Across America tour, the kids arguably connect the most when Carrabba is on stage. Where fights and pits erupt throughout the other bands’ sets, all eyes and ears are on Carrabba, though you can barely hear him because the crowds’ own vocals are nearly drowning him out.
Part of the success of Carrabba’s evocation is in his delivery. He communicates with stunning articulation, but sings with that youthful, locker-gazing disillusionment in his voice, much like The Get Up Kids’ Matt Pryor and The Promise Ring’s Davey Von Bohlen. He avoids the whining and screeching of most other punk singers, but in songs like “This Bitter Pill,” he lets his voice trail off into the gruff cry, as if he has just started bawling. It makes performing, according to Carrabba, emotionally exhausting.
Almost as exhausting for the tattooed singer—who is an elementary school administrator by day—is the preparation he takes to sing in public. Despite how well Carrabba resonates during his performances, he suffers from acute stage fright.
“Every night, getting on stage is a process,” he says. “It’s self-convincing. I must get out of the van, go inside the club, get up on stage, get on the stool, pick up the guitar and start to sing. The first song, I feel like I’m gonna run, that fight-or-flight instinct. But towards the end, I’m ready to fight for my songs, and I put everything into it, and I’m fine.”
Carrabba’s hard-won efforts of late have won him not only high critical praise, but also comparisons to accomplished singer-songwriters with far more experience. Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Bruce Springsteen—those are just a few of the artists he has been likened to, and it doesn’t rest easy with him.
“It’s an uncomfortable feeling to have someone say that to you,” says Carrabba. “I have that hot embarrassment feeling, like, that’s not right, I don’t deserve that. I’m too young and new and undeserving of those sort of comments. Maybe one day … those are goals, not toward being an icon, but I mean the kind of songcrafting those guys are naturally able to put in their songs. I feel it’s an afterthought, and I’m just striving to craft my songs well. And as hard as I try, I can’t imagine. How do you know how to write a song as well as Tom Petty and Bob Dylan if you’re not Tom Petty and Bob Dylan?”
But Carrabba’s dismissal of lofty comparisons doesn’t seem like mere deflections to keep his ego from exploding. He’s paid his dues, and now he keeps his modesty despite reaping the rewards of his evolving artistry. Of course, the fact that it’s still evolving and breeding opportunity makes the growing crowds and deafening sing-alongs all the more rewarding.
“It’s completely humbling,” says Carrabba. “I’ve been doing this music thing for 10 years, so it’s a 10-year overnight success. The fact that there’s more kinds coming out … I don’t know if it means I have more to live up to. But it’s a chance to offer them more, and give more of myself—because I’m allowed to.”
The Vagrant America Tour: Saves the Day, Dashboard Confessional, Hot Rod Circuit and Hey Mercedes. Bricks, 579 W. 200 South (328-0255), Saturday Aug. 4, 6 p.m.