SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT

Christian rock combines the Lord's message with the devil's beat. Sometimes the result is exhilaration. Sometimes it's god-awful confusion.

The four members of AllStarUnited sit in a tiny cinderblock room inside the Stoneridge Amphitheater at Lake of the Ozarks. They're part of the Crossover Music Festival, a Christian-music celebration spanning three days. A handful of Christian-radio and magazine reporters stand, microphones aimed at the band. A month earlier, AllStarUnited gigged at First Baptist Church in Ferguson to no more than 100 people, and it's difficult to reconcile the meager turnout then with the obsessive interest the journalists have in them here. There, they were a band playing to a nearly empty sanctuary; here, AllStarUnited are rock stars. Someone asks an umbrella kickoff question: "Do you have anything you want to say to the teenagers?"

"Yeah. Grow up!" quips drummer Christian Crowe, and the room erupts in laughter. Cameras flash. The scene is reminiscent of the Beatles' press conference at JFK Airport on the eve of the group's first American tour: a rock group basking in the limelight of adulation. Finally, lead singer Ian Eskelin, who resembles Simon LeBon, gets serious: "We have a lot of fun with the rock & roll thing. I mean, first and foremost we're Christians, but when we have those moments up onstage when we can ham it up and play to the audience, yeah, it's a rock & roll thing, and people get a kick out of it and they love it and they laugh and we laugh with them because we're pretty much just mocking ourselves."

(Notably, though, when interviewed after the Christian press has left the room, Eskelin contradicts himself: "We want to pound people in the brain with the music, because first and foremost, and as crazy as this may sound — and some of the readers may freak out, especially if they're Christians — but first and foremost, we're musicians. We're a rock band.")

Rebecca, Sara and Deborah Dickson swoon to the music of 4Him at the Crossover Christian Music Festival.
Jennifer Silverberg
Rebecca, Sara and Deborah Dickson swoon to the music of 4Him at the Crossover Christian Music Festival.
Jennifer Silverberg
AllStarUnited field questions from the Christian press during their performance at Crossover. Below: AllStarUnitedís Ian Eskelin mingles with his flock .

"What's your favorite song on the new album?" asks someone from a Christian radio station.

"I like them all," says Eskelin. ""Thank You Goodnight' is a pretty personal song for me. It's a prayer for the end of the day, saying, "God, thank you so much for helping me through. I couldn't get through a 24-hour period without you. I can't imagine not having you in my life.'"

Eskelin is a born preacher. Whether speaking one-on-one or performing in front of a few thousand people, as he does at Crossover, when he speaks of faith, he does it earnestly and enthusiastically. The band's sound is straight from The Point: alternative rock that draws from Weezer and Nirvana, peppered with a few ska horns every now and then. AllStarUnited bang out a song with an affected sneer and a bouncy beat. Up onstage, they appear to be typical rock stars, and you imagine that the role comes replete with all the baggage: the alcohol, the drugs, the groupies, the hotel-room demolitions. The concepts seem so connected that they're understood to be related: If you play in a band, and you tour, and you're becoming popular, the "fringe benefits" are free. So, as drummer Crowe pounds out the ending to "Popular Americans" (with the righteous refrain "We're the ones/We're the popular Americans") and smashes the cymbals, what comes next is surprising, as Eskelin calms down the crowd with one hand raised: "I want to stop and take a moment here." He pauses and keeps his hand held high. "We have a good time with what we do, but we have some serious things to talk about as well within the midst of our chaos and ridiculous confusion up here. And that thing is that we serve an amazing, powerful, gracious lord in Jesus Christ, who chooses to love us despite our mistakes. And, man, God knows I made some stupid mistakes in my life. But haven't we all? You know, the thing that blows me away more than anything is that amazing love and grace that God extends toward us that he put out in the middle of a space, in the middle of this hot planet Earth, and he chooses to love us no matter what, and that is just so cool. It just warms my heart."

These between-song sermons are a standard part of the experience throughout the community. Nearly every band will pause at least a few times during a set to preach the Gospel, words that are nearly interchangeable from band to band. Most allow that sin is inevitable and that we all mess up on a daily basis. Life is a roller coaster of temptation, regret and, ultimately, joy, and all we as human beings can do is try our hardest to avoid sin as often as possible. Most important, it seems, is the acknowledgment, one that's repeated over and over, that we do make mistakes — we're only human — and that Jesus' ultimate gift is forgiveness.

Just as important as the message of the sermons themselves, though, is the simple fact of them — these breaks, in fact, are expected. The skepticism that accompanied the Dingees performance had its superficial root in the purported cuss word, but there also seemed genuine doubt about the group's beliefs throughout the performance. They never stopped for a sermon, never once acknowledged Jesus or thanked the Lord. And although Pegleg directed nay-sayers to the lyric sheet of the Dingees' recent Armageddon Massive CD, their lyrics make no mention of Christ or Christianity; song titles like "Ghetto Box Smash," "Rebel Youth" and "Carry On with the Countdown" could be songs on the most recent Rancid CD or an early Circle Jerks album (in fact, many of the punk kids at Mid-Rivers Baptist Chapel were practicing a variation on slam-dancing made famous by the Circle Jerks).

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