It's a late January evening at the Denver Rescue Mission, and the Mission Band is getting ready to play in front of a typically tough crowd--approximately sixty disheveled men (and a handful of women) who hardly seem excited about the music to come. Most of the men stare solemnly ahead and make little eye contact with their peers. Some doze off, others sit upright and attentive, and a few slouch defiantly, like high-school bad boys awaiting a tongue-lashing. There's an empty chair between most of the attendees, all of whom sport a layer of grime and a palpable weariness that comes in part from knowing that they've got to sit through an hour of saving grace in exchange for a free meal. But what many of them don't realize is that while the musicians are here to espouse religious beliefs, they're determined to rock the house as they do.
After a brief Scripture reading and a reminder of the house rules--no hats, fighting, drugs, drunkenness or "disrespecting God"--the band opens with a lurching version of Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody." Jay Earl Krebs, a clean-cut 35-year-old, strums an acoustic guitar and delivers a fervently bluesy vocal that's backed by upper-register harmonies from Christopher Hearns, a cohort who works at the Mission. Meanwhile, guitarist Jimmy Kincaid sends down fuzz-toned single-string leads embellished with occasional whammy-bar dips; bassist John Clardy fingers energetic lines in front of his tucked-and-rolled Kustom amplifier; and drummer John Simpson provides the sort of thunder that eventually grabs the attention of most of the audience. At one point, a baby-faced young man goes through a slow-motion ritual of removing his shoes and socks and inspecting his calluses, then puts his footwear back on only to repeat the painstaking process. But later, during a dramatic version of "Were You There When They Crucified the Lord?," the man listens while gazing at a jailhouse tattoo of a cross on his middle finger.
Christianity is a constant theme at the Denver Rescue Mission: Its interior includes such decorative touches as a crown of thorns, several stock portraits of Christ tending his flock, and the words "HE CARETH" spelled out in pink neon. The Mission Band (which also includes keyboardist Dennis Hall) follows this path as well, dispensing a raucous brand of "aggressive praise" to the downbeat types who line up each night under the "Jesus Saves" sign that illuminates the facility's entrance. But if you think these raging revivalists see themselves as better than their listeners, think again. With the exception of Krebs, who founded the combo in 1996, each of the musicians was once among the poor souls to whom they're now ministering. In Clardy's words, they were "a bunch of drug addicts, alcoholics, misfits and sinners" prior to overcoming their vices with the help of the Denver Rescue Mission's New Life rehabilitation program, which helps homeless men get back on their feet. And now they're using their chops to let the city's lost legions know that a similar transformation can be theirs as well, no matter what vice is keeping them on the sidewalk.
Kincaid is one of the Mission Band's success stories. "I was homeless and had family here in Denver, but people got sick of me trying to kill myself," he says. "I was very bad, drinking vodka for breakfast. I spent decades trying to destroy God's temple." But after joining New Life in 1997, he got over his addictions. Eight months ago, on the day he graduated from New Life, he married the woman he had "put through hell" and subsequently enrolled at the Community College of Denver. Today he's majoring in environmental technology, holds a 4.125 GPA and stands as a nominee for president of Phi Beta Kappa's Denver chapter. "Some people say I'm a walking miracle," Kincaid admits, "but I give all the glory to God."
So, too, does Clardy, whose handsome face bears the weathered stamp of street life. "My big thing was downers," he notes. "Heroin, Secanol, Tuinols, Dilaudid, Demerols--you name it. I'd do just about anything you'd lay in front of me." By 1985, when he grabbed his guitar, some vodka and a bag of marijuana and moved from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Denver, he already had a few years of homelessness under his belt. He'd lost his job and his apartment, but rather than asking for help from his family, he sought relief from smack, smoke and Smirnoff. His life alternated between periods of comparatively good fortune during which he played in a local rock band, Santa's Little Helper, and addled stints in abandoned buildings. But things turned around after he signed on with New Life in 1992. He successfully completed the five-step plan in 1995, and when he returned to the Mission the following year, he did so as a house manager. "Now I've got my own home," he says proudly.
According to Clardy and Kincaid, New Life gets clients away from the ills of the street and under a roof, giving them a chance to dry out and take control of their demons. The program centers on sobriety, Bible studies, group counseling and literacy and job-training skills. Admission is free, and members receive room, board and a $10 weekly allowance while they're enrolled. (Working outside the shelter is prohibited until the course's final stretch.) Completion of the program takes from ten months to several years. "We're trying to turn out individuals with individual ideas and Christian ideals about doing the right things," Clardy says. "We want people to get a higher education and a good job that's a career. We're stressing that they become productive members of society instead of leeches on society."
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.
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"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.