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The Mission Band attempts to further this goal, Krebs says, by providing an extracurricular activity that keeps New Lifers as excited about staying on board as he is to help them. He began his career in musical redemption at age seventeen, when he took to the streets of Las Vegas to play religious anthems for the denizens of Sin City. Then, in 1981, he left Nevada for Denver and spent years giving speeches and assistance to East Colfax wanderers. In addition to helping found Denver's Church in the City, he held positions with numerous on-the-pavement ministries in the area before hooking up with the Mission in 1995. In explaining the idea behind the band, he says, "I noticed that when guys got sober, they were extremely talented. I was just trying to harness some of that talent. Originally I was just looking for an in-house jam session, but now that we're organized, we can go to other places and hopefully bless other people." The group is now supplementing its Denver Rescue Mission performance schedule with monthly shows at the Salvation Army's Crossroads Shelter and appearances at occasional public events. In addition, the group has released a cassette and is in the midst of recording a full-length CD.
"It's ironic that we're making a CD, because most of the people we're playing to can't afford a CD or own a CD player," Krebs concedes. However, he's eager to give folks outside the homeless community a chance to explore the issues his smartly crafted compositions tackle. "Some of the songs I write go right to the circumstances of the people out there. Everything's black and white down here. It's life-or-death situations. The people who come into the chapel--they may be hearing the Gospel for the first time. And some may be hearing the Gospel for the last time. That's a reality. I don't mask very much. I think people want the truth."
The Mission performers don't claim to possess any rare musical gifts ("We crucify a lot of songs," Krebs admits, chuckling), but they believe in their high-powered approach to worship. "Some people just don't want to listen to the standard praise songs, because it's old hat and doesn't get their attention," Kincaid says. "To get their attention, you have to raise the bar."
"I think the most radical music you can get into now is taking the Gospel and saying, 'Here it is, in your face,'" Krebs adds. "I think that's a pretty radical statement."
Ernie Whitehead, a Vietnam vet and former junkie who credits New Life with turning him into a cowboy poet and "messenger of God," has some passionate testimony to offer as well. Halfway through the Mission Band's January set, Whitehead steps to the pulpit following a distorted solo by Kincaid and spits out a tough-love sermon that pulls no punches. "If you're out there suffering in the cold, you can blame it on yourself," he declares--and when an audience member apparently under the influence of spirits interrupts his spiel for a third time, he warns, "Once more and I'm going to come down there and lay hands on you." He then offers a stern call to action, complete with frequent mentions of topics that hit home with the crowd: foster homes, abuse, having one's teeth fall out from chronic use of crystal meth and rolling drunken alleymates for their drinking money.
"You're right," a man in the back of the room hollers in the midst of this litany. "We ain't nobody right now."
Whitehead doesn't skip a beat. "You guys sit there and you cry and complain, 'Man, no one understands me. I fought in Vietnam, watched people die and had blood splattered all over my face and stuff.' You say, 'Nobody cares about me, so I'm going to go get drunk and do a line of coke as long as a cue stick. And I'm going to die and go to hell.' Well, give it a break, friend. Haven't you had enough?"
With that, the Mission Band slides into a heavenly Krebs-penned ballad that its author sings in a throaty vibrato reminiscent of Elvis before he descended into Vegas. "Stand up on your feet," he croons. "Step out from the crowd. The time is now. Let the spirit lead." On cue, a fifty-something man in dingy work clothes rises from his seat and shuffles to the altar. He shakes hands with Whitehead before falling into his arms. As the two slowly collapse onto the altar steps, the man's head falls into Whitehead's lap, his back heaving with emotion, prompting Whitehead to clutch the man's shoulders and pray in his ear. More recruits follow: When the act rolls into a cover of "Rock of Ages," two more men approach Whitehead and drop to a knee.
As if in celebration of these small steps in the right direction, the combo closes with "Satan, It Just Ain't Funny Anymore," a Krebs composition that ends with feedback, crashing cymbals and a refrain--"Get your hands off my people!"--that's more than loud enough to shatter most preconceptions about Christian music. "Whether it belongs in the churches or not, that's up to God," Krebs says about the Mission Band after the show is over. "But if the churches want us to blow their roofs off, we'll go in and blow them off.