On a date with Clean Slate, Panton's rock-and-holy-rollers
On a dimly lit stage, Suzanne Rood sings a love song. "When I'm afraid," she croons in a sweet, plaintive voice, "I climb into your arms and you hold me." Rood's not singing to her husband, Rich. She's got another man in mind, a man symbolized by the giant wooden cross hanging on the wall behind her, topped with a crown of large, pointy thorns. She's singing to Jesus Christ.
Rood -- whose last name, coincidentally, comes from an Old English word for "cross" -- is one of eight musicians in the Panton-based Christian rock band Clean Slate. As in, give yourself to Jesus, he'll give you a clean slate.
The band members all have a personal relationship with JC. They want me to meet him, too, or so they sing on a recent Saturday night at the Wesleyan Chapel in Ferrisburgh. The show is a benefit concert for their booking manager, who's headed to a mission in Zimbabwe. They hope that I, along with the other 30 people in the audience, will accept Jesus as my savior -- if not tonight, then at least before Judgment Day.
Actually, I'm probably the only one here who isn't tight with him already. This all-ages audience is probably not much different from the congregation that comes here on Sundays. I was raised Catholic, but stopped going to Mass after I came out as a lesbian. Not that going to Mass would have saved me -- these folks think Roman Catholics, homosexuals, Jews and Muslims are all in the same damned boat. Was it some kind of sign that, as I pulled into the parking lot, REM's "Losing My Religion" was playing on the car radio?
These evangelicals and I disagree on a wide variety of theological and practical concerns -- such as whether it's a good thing that the state of Vermont has sanctioned my civil union with another woman. Yet as the evening goes on, I find that I'm enjoying the show. Even fire and brimstone are difficult to resist when you put them in a pop song.
And that's sorta the point. Christian musicians figured that out years ago. These days, whatever your beliefs, you might be surprised to find yourself singing along with contemporary Christian songs you hear on the radio -- bands such as Creed, Evanescence and Switchfoot have all had recent hits on the Billboard Top 40.
But Clean Slate is no Switchfoot. For one thing, their lyrics are more explicitly Christian. In "Meant to Live," Switchfoot asks, cryptically, "We were meant to live for so much more / Have we lost ourselves?" Clean Slate's "Solid Rock" is more direct: "On Christ the solid rock I stand / all other ground is sinking sand."
And these down-to-earth moms and pops all have day jobs -- frontman Gordon Dobson, for example, is the branch manager of a bank; trumpet/cornet/recorder player Marge Huff spends her days homeschooling her six kids. They're not in the music biz because they want to be rich and famous. They gig because they love to play music, and because they want to convert their listeners. Christianity isn't just the band's official religion; it's their raison d'etre.
"We allow ourselves to be used by God," explains Dobson during an intermission interview. Although he's not related to Focus on the Family founder James Dobson -- leader of the fight against "activist" gay-rights-granting judges -- he seems pleased when I make the connection.
Dobson says the band met in choir at the Panton Community Baptist Church in 1999. After a couple of years -- and a mission trip to Wales -- Clean Slate morphed into a separate group. Now they write and perform their own material, and cover popular songs by other contemporary born-again-Christian groups. They have a website -- http://www.cleanslatemusic.com  -- and a slick new CD, Polystyrene Beaker.
They call themselves a rock band, but they like to mix things up. Some of their set list sounds a little bit country, like "Clean Slate," the anthem Rood wrote about redemption. "Just like a child I wanted to do things my own way" she recalls in a sassy, twangy voice. "Authority wasn't something I wanted to obey."
But, of course, she learns her lesson. "He gave me a clean slate / when I confessed my sins / He gave me a clean slate / now I belong to him." Honestly, I can't help thinking it's a pity.
The band's most electrifying number is actually a cover of "DC-10," a Christian swing song by a band of the same name. As he belts out the lyrics to this irresistibly upbeat number, Dobson bops around the stage like the lead singer of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
"If a DC-10 ever fell on your head," he sings, "Lying on the ground all messy and dead / Or a Mack truck run over you / Or you suddenly die in your Sunday pew / Do you know where you're gonna go?... Straight to heaven or down the hole?"
I can't stop tapping my feet. I want to jump around up there myself, but there's no mosh pit. I can tell the rest of the audience is into it, though. The gray-haired women in front of me are all nodding their heads. Yep, I may be headed to H-E-double hockey sticks, but I'll be humming that little ditty as I go.
The only thing that unnerves me about it is that, like much of Clean Slate's oeuvre, the song is about death. I'm clearly the only one in the room troubled by the group's fascination with the Rapture. That's when evangelicals believe God will spirit all the Christians off to heaven and leave the rest of us nonbelievers to rot here in agony on Earth. It's the basis for the popular Christian "Left Behind" book series.
Bassist Keith Darwin sings lead vocals on a particularly eerie tune about the End Time. Yes, his name is Darwin. No, the band doesn't believe in evolution. "We tease him about it all the time," Dobson quips during intermission.
"Someday there's gonna be a shout, and a trumpet blast, and we're going to be gone," Darwin promises as he introduces the song. The crowd responds with a spontaneous "Amen." "I tell you, I can't wait," he says.
Then he smiles and sings about how he'll be leaving soon. "Bye-bye, I gotta fly, got a date up in the sky... One day we'll hear that sound" -- cue Marge Huff on trumpet -- "and we'll be lifted off the ground."
It ends with the band members encouraging the audience to wave their arms in the air and sing, "Bye-bye, hey, bye-bye," so that everyone is waving goodbye but me. It's the only time in the whole show when I feel profoundly uncomfortable. Not because I fear being left behind, but because I don't want them to be so excited to leave. It's kinda creepy. I'm not eager to leave this life, and I'm inherently suspicious of anyone who is.
I find the unfortunately catchy song "Take Them to Our Leader" equally icky. Dobson prefaces the number, written by a group called The Newsboys, by dedicating it to Marcella Smith, the woman who's going to the mission in Africa. "This song is about the main thing you do every day, and the main thing you're going to do over there," he tells her. "You're going to be taking people to our leader."
Smith puts a different spin on the two-and-a-half-week trip when she gets up to talk about it before intermission. A divorced thirtysomething woman who works as a systems administrator at Middlebury College, Smith seems as grounded in her faith as the rest of them, but less strident about it. She asks the audience to please contribute to her travel fund. She'll be taking food, medicine, clothing and toys to the children at the mission, many of whom are dying of AIDS. "They really have a tremendous need," she says.
And somehow, when Smith talks about death, it seems real for the first time that night. "I really don't know how to prepare for seeing people who are dying," she says, her voice full of genuine doubt. The chapel grows silent. In Zimbabwe, she tells us, one out of every two children under 15 will die of AIDS.
"When we look up at these kids in the balcony," she says, pointing to the children who just a few moments ago were dancing, "we just can't imagine half of them not making it to 15."
The magnitude of that suffering eclipses whatever differences I have with the people sitting around me. I instantly feel how much we have in common. During intermission, I toss a $5 bill into the collection. I know Smith will be using the money to win converts, but making a contribution seems like the right thing to do.
I stay for a few more songs, then duck out before the concert's over. It's dark. The brick chapel appears bathed in light. The music escaping into the night fills me with a sense of happiness and peace. Maybe that's because I can't hear the words.