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Let There Be Rock

Three suburban teenagers help bring their Christian-rock idols to town.

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By Tori Marlan

Earplugs are selling for 50 cents at Faith United Methodist, an evangelical church on a quiet residential street in Downers Grove, where God's word is a bit louder than usual tonight. Beneath the backdrop of an enormous wooden cross, on a stage regularly dominated by a white-haired pastor, a hard rock band called Bride is blasting out its message.

Most of the adults present have either planted themselves in the folding chairs along the periphery of the room or fled to the hallway, but about 100 adolescents bounce around in front of the stage, some perilously close to the giant speakers. Among the rowdiest are three friends from the church youth group who were instrumental in bringing the band here: Greg Whitt, the 17-year-old president of the youth group; Geoff Barnes, a 16-year-old and one of the only African-Americans in the crowd; and Aaron Wathall, an 18-year-old home-schooled senior. Bride is one of their favorite bands.

Onstage, the singer, Dale Thompson, lunges back and forth in a shimmery button-down shirt and oversize shorts that reveal tattooed calves. He's screaming into the mike, "Would you die, would you die, would you die for me?" Pounding music swallows up most of his words, but Greg, Aaron, and Geoff follow along with ease, mouthing and sometimes shouting the lyrics, punching the air, and bobbing their heads like the guitarist, Dale's brother Troy, whose face repeatedly disappears behind his long, thrashing hair.

Like all devoted Bride fans, the boys know that Dale's hair used to be even longer than Troy's. Concerned that it distracted from his message, he cut off 24 inches one day, then auctioned off the ponytail to fans. A young woman from Ohio claimed it for $75.

In between songs, Dale mentions that he's growing out his hair again "to tick off old people." His bangs are now just long enough to cover his eyes while he sings and to slick back when he wants to see. "Know who they are?" he asks. "People my age who listen to contemporary Christian music." The crowd boos and hisses. Dale is 34.

He flicks a plastic water-bottle cap into the audience, and the band launches into a song off its new album, The Jesus Experience.

Greg, Aaron, and Geoff go nuts, jumping stiffly up and down, pogo-style. Even though Dale's sore throat is keeping him from producing the falsetto screeching he's known for, they still think the show is totally awesome. For months they've been hyped-up about the concert; now that it's almost over, they have something else to look forward to. Thanks to their youth-group leader, 26-year-old Robin Wudtke, they will get to spend some face time over breakfast with Dale and the rest of the band--Troy Thompson, Jerry McBroom, and Steve Curtsinger.

Geoff says he considers Dale a "positive role model" because he's been a Christian for 22 years, eschewing temptation and reaching out to others through songs and postshow sermons to help them do the same. Unlike many secular celebs who keep admirers at a safe distance with the help of beefy security guards, Dale returns his fans' love. He E-mails them. He prays with them. He gives them advice. He lets them stand as close as they want to the stage during his shows and then sticks around for a while afterward, preaching, mingling, and signing autographs.

Greg says he underwent a profound change the first time he heard Dale speak, last year after a Bride concert at the Warehouse Church in Aurora, a kid-oriented church that has concerts a couple of times a month. In a lilting, twangy voice, with the well-timed stops and starts required of a good preacher, Dale proclaimed that sins were dead branches and told his listeners that they needed to prune the dead wood from their lives if they wanted to blossom as Christians.

Something powerful stirred inside Greg--hit him "square in the heart," he says. He began to think about all the shameful things in his life that were preventing him from having a personal relationship with God. Sobbing, he moved toward the stage. Wudtke and two others tailed him, then surrounded him. They prayed for him and with him, and by the end of the night, Greg says, he had "rededicated" his life. He was born again.

Several months later, when Wudtke suggested holding a rock concert at their church, the boys facetiously requested Bride. A big Bride fan himself, Wudtke said he'd try to book them. The boys had a good laugh. Bride had played all over the country and in Scandinavia, Europe, and South America, sometimes to stadium crowds. They had won four Dove Awards, Christian rock's highest honor, and had had 14 number-one singles on the Christian-rock radio charts. Dale had been voted favorite singer by readers of HM magazine (formerly Heaven's Metal) for six consecutive years, and had released his own educational cassette, Overview of Sin, and a video clip from a live concert, called "Dale's Daring Leap From a Balcony Into a Sea of Fans."

There was no way, the boys thought, that Bride would actually play at their own little church, with its youth-group population of 30 at best. When Wudtke showed them the contract, says Aaron, who usually keeps five Bride CDs in his six-CD changer, "It was like a dream come true."

The problem was, the band was charging $1,700. In all it would cost about $6,000 to pull the show off. To raise funds, the youth group staged a kidnapping of their pastor during a sermon. Panicked parishioners leapt out of their seats and began charging the masked abductors, but others in the know successfully staved them off. Frightened faces relaxed only when the church's lay leader--the person responsible for acting in the pastor's stead--read the ransom note, in which the abductors identified themselves.

That week the congregation forked over $3,000 for their pastor's "release." The rest of the funds came from the youth-group budget, ticket sales, and a few private benefactors.

To generate publicity, members of the youth group made over 500 posters to hang in local businesses and sent out announcements to the 630 Illinoisans on Bride's mailing list. They also passed out flyers and CDs provided by the band's label, Organic Records, to interest their secular friends. Greg was disappointed in his friends at Downers Grove South. "People, if they hear it's Christian music, they don't think it's any good," he says. "I had people say any CD that has Jesus on it can't be any good. People call it cult music, just retarded things. I don't understand."

Geoff had no better luck at Downers Grove North. "A lot of people stereotype Christian music as being boring," he says. "But Bride is like so awesome, they don't know what they're missing."

As the date of the concert approached, Greg listened to his Bride CDs over and over, memorizing the lyrics. When the three-week mark hit, Aaron and Geoff began a countdown, calling each other every day.

When the big day finally arrived, Aaron skipped his home schooling and arrived at the church at 10 AM to help set up. (He says his mother, his teacher, was busy anyway.) Greg bailed out of his afternoon classes and got there at two. Geoff and some other friends showed up later in the afternoon, after school.

The helpers brought folding chairs into the concert hall, a multipurpose room used for Saturday-night sermons, children's plays, and youth-group events. They assisted the sound company, moved coatracks into the hallway, and set up tables behind which adult volunteers in red aprons would sell candy, soda, and water. They also set up "counseling rooms" for anyone who might be overcome by emotion during Dale's sermon, as Greg had been last year. They stocked the designated rooms with Bibles to give away and name-and-address forms so Wudtke could check up on anyone who subsequently "fell away."

When Wudtke announced Bride's arrival, Greg, Aaron, and Geoff jumped up and down like game-show contestants, pacing frantically and saying "Oh, man, Bride's here" and "Aw, this is so cool." They bolted outside to the driveway, and there before them, living and breathing and stretching their legs, were Dale and Troy and Jerry and Steve. Dale and Troy and Jerry and Steve, right there in person at their own church.

As down-to-earth as the band strives to be--on their Web site fans can learn that Dale can bench-press 300 pounds and has taken up boxing, or that Troy likes to chop wood for fun--the boys were starstruck. "When we saw them we just kind of stood there," Greg recalls.

After pulling themselves together, the boys helped Bride unload their equipment and then stuck around for the sound check. Although they didn't really have an opportunity to talk much with the band members, they knew there would be time for that later, over breakfast. Everything was perfect.

When the show winds up around 10 PM, the band leaves the stage, but Dale remains behind alone. He runs his fingers through his hair, brushing his bangs off his face, and asks to have the house lights brought up. A large softcover Bible rests open in his left hand. Many of the parents and other adults have filed back into the room and are sitting on the floor with the teenagers, giving Dale their full attention.

"What I want to talk about is fairly deep," Dale tells them, stroking his chin, "so I want you to pay attention. It's not anything new. I just need to remind people of certain things sometimes."

He begins a lengthy, rambling sermon, touching on Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, and Noah's ark, which he says "was no Titanic, but I bet it was miserable."

Then he raises the Bible above his head, growing serious. "Some say that's just stories, that's just fairy tales. If you don't believe it all, throw it away and don't believe none of it. 'Cause a little bit of religion will only send you to hell, but a whole lot of Jesus will put you at the front row of the pearly gates." He pauses and lowers his voice. "And that's the honest truth."

He goes on to quote scripture and share personal stories, assuring the crowd that one doesn't need science to prove God's existence and warning that "horoscopes, psychics, Ouija boards, Dungeons & Dragons, Marilyn Manson, and all of these other things that seem intriguing here on earth are of the devil."

Toward the end of the sermon, Dale says his message is intended for somebody who is searching, somebody who hasn't believed, somebody who thinks he needs proof, somebody who needs to reconnect with God.

Aaron begins to feel that Dale is speaking directly to him, that nobody else is in the room. Aaron was saved in 1986, but now he realizes that his relationship with God has been strained lately, that he's blamed God for the deaths of his father and a few other relatives, and that he's been just going through the motions of being a Christian while avoiding a real spiritual connection with God.

"If you need prayer, come forward now," Dale says.

The crowd is silent. Nobody, not even Aaron, budges. "I knew this would be a tough crowd, because God told me it would be," Dale says. "A lot of hearts here have become hard."

Still nobody moves. After a few seconds, a man walks up to the stage. "If you don't step forward it means the Holy Spirit won't touch you," he yells out. "Nobody in this room can say they're perfect."

Dale thanks the man, then tells the story of his own salvation, how at age 12 he threw himself facedown at the altar and accepted Jesus.

A few people trickle forward. Everybody is calm. Nobody is in need of a counseling room.

Dale shuts his eyes, offers a prayer, and finishes up with three pointers: go to church, shun the ways of the world, and read the Bible. Then he disappears backstage, telling the stage manager he wants to be left alone to pray with the band. After about 20 minutes he reemerges to sign autographs. A line of fans has formed. They're clutching CDs, T-shirts, and sheets of paper. A scrawny boy in a Megadeth T-shirt tells Dale, "You were good." Dale tells the kid to E-mail him anytime. A younger boy, about eight or nine years old, asks if Dale recognizes him. "Yes, sir," Dale says. "You were right up front." A middle-aged woman, the only one in line without something for Dale to sign, wraps her hands over his and whispers to him. He shuts his eyes, and when she releases her grasp he thanks her.

Aaron catches up with Dale as he's on the way out the door. "Dale, could you do me a favor?" he asks. "Could you pray for me? I'm feeling kind of weird." Aaron only means for Dale to pray for him later, back in the hotel or wherever. But Dale places a firm hand on Aaron's shoulder and prays right then and there that God will lead him in the right direction.

The morning after the show, around 7:30, Greg picks up Aaron and they drive to the Downers Delight Pancake House and Restaurant. Geoff, who was supposed to catch a ride with them but apparently was too eager to wait, is already here, hanging out with a few friends from the youth group. Aaron and Greg rib him for blowing them off, but they're all too giddy to really care.

They sit down at several pushed-together tables. The group will include the band members, the three soundmen, some members of the youth group, Wudtke, his wife, and a few of his friends (and fellow Bride fans) who came in from out of town to help with the show.

Not long after the boys get settled, Aaron spots Dale and Troy and Jerry and Steve in the parking lot, walking toward the restaurant.

"Awesome, look!" he exclaims, pointing out a window.

Geoff's eyes widen and he blurts out, "We get to eat breakfast with Bri-ide!"

As the musicians make their way toward the group, a pall falls over the table; the teenagers are as silent as if they were in church. The band members look scruffy compared to their clean-cut hosts, most of whom are in jeans and expensive sneakers. Dale chooses a seat near the window at the far end of the table. He's wearing a black jersey and black jeans. Next to him sits Steve Curtsinger, the bassist, who sports a hoop in each ear and a silver choker. He's wearing the same black ski cap he had on during the concert. Jerry McBroom, the drummer, sits to Steve's left, wearing a backward baseball cap and a diamond stud in his left ear. Next to him sits Troy, his long hair now pulled into a low ponytail. Troy is the only one in the band without facial hair, but like the rest of them he wears a simple gold wedding band.

Greg grows shy, afraid of saying something stupid. Geoff is anxious for different reasons. What if the band acts, like, weird or something, he worries. Or what if they're not nice?

The band members banter a bit among themselves, then make small talk with the teenagers. Why is Illinois called the Land of Lincoln, they ask, when Lincoln was actually born in their home state of Kentucky?

Aaron and Geoff strain to hear the conversation. They're stuck sitting too far away, next to a boy who's yammering on about a girl he likes. After they order breakfast, Troy and the band's stage manager drift off into a conversation about computers, which fascinates Jerry but irritates Steve, who eventually orders them to "snap out of it."

Don't fill your minds with useless information, he warns the teenagers.

"What kind of useless stuff should we not worry about?" a girl asks.

"School," he says adamantly.

Dale concurs. "There's nothing about school that was important," he says.

The teenagers laugh.

Nutritional information on food boxes, Dale says. "Who cares how many grams of fat there are? You have to be a mathematician to figure it out."

The teenagers laugh again.

All that useless information goes into your head, Dale says, and takes up space that should be reserved for more important things, like God and the Bible. "Flowers. You don't need to know if it's a tulip, a rose, or a daisy," he says. "It's pretty!"

"What difference does it make?" Steve agrees. "You never get to use this useless stuff."

They're on a roll. "Like changing oil," Steve continues. "Why do you need to know how to change your oil? They have people to do that."

Greg jumps in, speaking up for the first time. "But then I have to pay for it," he reasons.

"But then you can clear your mind," Dale tells him. He rattles off another example. "Statistics."

Steve nods his head. "It's totally useless."

"People like Ronald Reagan," Dale says, "he filled up his head with too much useless information."

"Yup," says Steve. "That's why he has Alzheimer's."

More laughter.

The table fills up with omelettes, pigs in a blanket, biscuits and gravy, and French toast topped with mounds of whipped cream and neon-bright berries.

Wudtke stands and asks everyone to join hands. "That's pretty gay," Dale says, grimacing, "but sure."

The teenagers shriek with laughter. When they calm down, Robin blesses the food.

"Now I gotta wash my hands," Dale cracks.

After breakfast, good-byes are exchanged and the band disappears on the road back to Kentucky. "It's over," Greg whines. But as they drive off, the boys regain their giddiness. Toothy grins appear on their faces as Greg repeats for Aaron and Geoff all the funny things Dale and Steve said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bride photo by Ben Pearson; Greg Whitt, Aaron Wathall, Geoff Barnes photo by Randy Tunnell; Robin Wudtke photo by Randy Tunnell; Dale, Troy, Jerry, Steve photo uncredited.

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