Dashboard Confessional has stolen my heart in New Jersey, again, ten years later


ATLANTIC CITY, NJ—Chris Carrabba and the other three members of Dashboard Confessional are performing their hit song “Vindicated,” which you may know from the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack, when Carrabba calls time-out.

A stage diver had run onto, and jumped off, the stage moments before, and two security guards are dragging him away. “Easy, easy,” Carrabba says to the guards, still strumming. We, the casually dressed, gently swaying men and women of the audience, don’t really care that this guy is being manhandled, and we’re still singing along.

“He’s not getting arrested, for crying out loud. Be easy on the guy, yeah?” Carrabba is visibly upset, his youthful, elfin face falling. But it’s time for the chorus and we, rabid fans of the 2000 rock/indie/emo outfit, start singing. “Vindicated! I am selfish, I am wrong,” we chant, but by now Carrabba has stopped playing altogether.

“Easy, hey hey, time-out, time-out. That guy can be treated a little more gently, I am certain of it,” he says, and repeats, “I am certain of it.”

At 41, Chris Carrabba is once again stepping into the role of Dashboard Confessional frontman, and heading a band whose sound still caters to the adult listeners who loved him in high school. He’s back, and he’s still the sensitive first boyfriend of your teenage dreams.

Dashboard Confessional hasn’t released an album since 2009’s Alter the Ending, but the band has been reminding its fans that the group is still around in the last year by touring: Over the summer of 2015, the band toured with Third Eye Blind. In March, the band played with Maroon 5 in Brazil, and soon they’ll tour with Taking Back Sunday. From the stage, Carrabba refers to the past seven years as a “hiatus.”

They join a growing contingency of late ’90s and early 2000s groups riding the wave of their once teenage fanbases growing up, getting jobs, and having cash to blow on concerts and festivals to listen to the bands and songs they already like. For a band like Dashboard, it appears to be more financially prudent to cash in on the nostalgia than it is to make a new album.

“You’ve brought us back and it feels so good,” he tells the crowd.

He plugs his upcoming tour, and promises fewer bounce houses. Technically, there are no bounce houses at the 11th annual Atlantic City Beer and Music Festival, but there is an inflatable Twister mat, at least one inflated slide, and something called “meltdown,” which is pretty close to a bounce house except it’s uncovered, and spinning, inflatable poles force “meltdown” players to jump up or stoop down to avoid being whacked and pushed over. A bounce house would actually be a pleasant alternative.

It’s very clear to everyone involved that the band is playing an event that is a beer festival first, and a music festival second. They’ve drawn a sizable crowd, but their openers (The Elwins and Hidden In Plain View) were less successful. When I stroll past The Elwins’ set, maybe 20 people are listening and nodding along. The rest are enjoying all-you-can-drink beer from exhibitors that include craft brewers and large distributors, filling up tiny cups over and over until, by the end of the night, they are drunk.

They’re also buying expensive (I opt for an $8 bag of popcorn) greasy food from vendors peddling pizza and subs, filling up on pretzels and hot dogs and buying T-shirts with pro-alcohol slogans on them (“Whiskey made me do it”). People are wearing pretzel necklaces for easy, constant access to alcohol-soaking carbs. Some are investing in kilts and artisanal chocolates and dog treats.

A local barbershop has set up a pop-up store, and is offering haircuts and shaves. Owner Steve Fitzgerald seems as surprised to be there as I am to see him. He tells me that this is his second year at the festival, he was invited by the organizer last year and was “busy the whole time.” Men were shorn, and women asked for temporary tattoos. To be fair, the haircuts and shaves are reasonably priced, and people get very drunk at this event.

A handful of men are tossing a football at a target which, if hit, is supposed to drop a girl into a tank of water. A bare-legged man wearing a green fish costume is walking around at a surprisingly fast clip, while someone on stilts casually makes his way across the hall. When I walk past the food court—a number of food trucks surrounding picnic tables—the smells are alluring, but the ceilings are so tall and the space so vast that the odors don’t stick. It feels like a state fair in here, if a state fair were held in a wide hall in a large, drab convention center in the heart of a once-casino-rich Northeastern city.

For most, tonight is about a marathon beer-guzzling session, and everything else is if not unwelcome, then irrelevant.

Among the throngs of beer enthusiasts are some true Dashboard Confessional fans who, like me, have come to the festival solely to see them play.

I fell in reluctant love with Dashboard Confessional’s music when I was in high school, and this is the third time I’m seeing the band perform live: The first time I was 15, a sophomore in high school, and had scribbled Dashboard lyrics on my knock-off Converses and sat with friends in nosebleed seats at an outdoor arena, also in Jersey, and watched Carrabba strum his guitar on a Jumbotron.

The second time I was a rising sophomore in college, and halfway through the concert, told myself I was “over” Chris. I spent most of that show sitting on a chaise lounge in a women’s restroom, watching younger girls primp and feeling bored and old and like it was time to close the chapter on my younger self.

But soon after, while I was still in college, I found myself absent-mindedly clicking into Dashboard Confessional YouTube playlists and listening all the way through, singing along to the songs I know by heart. Nobody can articulate what it’s like to feel deeply sad about or hurt by trivial things quite like Chris Carrabba can (“Waiting here with hopes the phone will ring/And I’m thinking awful things/I’m pretty sure that few would notice”) and whenever I was bummed about a text that never came or a relationship gone awry, I put Dashboard on and felt better. Twenty-year-old me may have been done with Dashboard Confessional, but late-20s me is back in.

Here, in this huge, harshly lit event hall in the Atlantic City convention center, I find some people who feel the same way. One soon-to-be-bride, in a tiara and veil and sash, tells me she decided to make the beer festival her bachelorette party because of Dashboard Confessional. “I listen to [their] old stuff now,” Kristin, 30, tells me, adding that a pregnant friend agreed to serve as designated driver for the evening only because the band was performing.

One woman, Christa, tells me that this is the fourth time she’ll be seeing the band perform. She’s there with Brian, and they both listened to Dashboard in high school (“Cherry Hill ‘03!” Brian says, somewhat sheepishly.) “I dropped [the band] for a while,” she tells me. “I’m getting back to my roots.”

Three men in flannel, all in their late 20s, tell me that they’re loyal Carrabba fans after correcting my pronunciation of his last name (it’s Cahrr-ahh-bba, apparently) and that they listened to his most recent project, Twin Forks, too. I follow another man wearing a DC t-shirt through the crowd before I stop him and ask him about his favorite songs. Everyone, it seems, started listening to Dashboard Confessional when they were in high school. It is clear that Chris Carrabba is intimately aware of this.

Dashboard Confessional comes on at 10:30 p.m., two and a half hours into the beer festival. My press pass doesn’t include access to the beer festival (“we have had some issues in the past,” a rep told me) so I am stone cold sober. I am also very full from cheddar-dusted popcorn and very hyped for the show. I’d been wandering the hall since 7 p.m., and I’m ready for things to get started. And from 10:30 until midnight, Carrabba gives us exactly what we want. He sings all of our old favorites—“Screaming Infidelities,” “Saints and Sailors,” “Stolen,” and others—and encourages us to sing along.

“You guys sound beautiful,” he coos, adding later, “You wanna sing one together?”

Carrabba looks remarkably like his younger self: Slight and trim with full black hair, styled as most men of the Brooklyn creative set keep their ‘dos: cropped close at the sides and long on top. His build is more muscular and his face more lined, but his gaze is as earnest and soulful as I like to remember it.

Protagonists in Dashboard songs rarely do more than “make out” with their lovers and Carrabba’s on-stage persona is squeaky clean, as well. He tells us from the stage about the time he kissed a girl under the Williamsburg bridge. “She was from Jersey,” he informs the cheering crowd.

Around 11:45 p.m., he tells us he won’t step off stage before doing an encore. “A lot of bands are like, we gotta go do cocaine or something, that’s not really true,” he says. “We get to play more songs if we don’t walk offstage.”

But what is most important to know about Chris Carrabba, beyond that he does not do cocaine so he can spend more time with you, is that Chris Carrabba, your teenage boyfriend, loves you.

“I love you,” he said before introducing us to the rest of the band, who we did not know the names of before and will not remember later.

“I love you,” he said after thanking a woman who might be his wife or manager.

Then he played “Hands Down” (“This song is about the best day I’ve ever had in my entire life”), and the crowd breaks in blissful harmony, turning to their friends to look them in the eyes as they sing along, phones darting into the night air to record the performance, a collage of iPhone screens.

The flanneled men from earlier have their arms around each other, and are jumping up and down. One woman who was intensely singing to her date during “Stolen” is facing forward and hopping in time to the song, while her date is waving his arm around behind her. A lot of people are fist bumping, pointing at the stage, or seemingly reaching toward Carrabba, as if they could touch him and as if he could feel it. I spot one man just standing and smiling at the band. It’s the end of the night, and people look happy.

At the close of session one, we stumble out of the still well-lit hall and quickly get our things and try to hail a cab. People are still giddy, their drunken forms garishly lit in the lights streaming from the external convention center bulbs.

Under my breath, I’m humming the tune to “The Swiss Army Romance,” the last verse of which I sang aloud with the recently disbanded crowd while Chris Carrabba silently gave us the floor. “We’re not 21,” we sang, a group of people united by a decade-old love for this song and the legal ability to drink beer at a festival, “but the sooner we are, the sooner the fun will begin.”

In the moment the singing felt cathartic, but it’s after midnight, and now I’m blushing at the memory.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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