It’s Saturday night in a dingy basement concert venue near downtown Philadelphia. Deep red and dark blue LED spots illuminate a bank of mist flowing from an over enthusiastic fog machine.
Despite the lights and haze, it’s clear that the knee-high platform near the front wall is no bigger than the cafetorium stage at my old grade school. For better or worse, St. Joe’s Elementary offered a classier room than this. But then David Le’aupepe, lead singer for Australian rock band Gang of Youths, steps up to the microphone. It’s the second time I’ve seen these guys play this room. Once again, there’s no place I’d rather be.
Le’aupepe is one of those heart-on-his sleeve singers who believes rock and roll can save your life and maybe even your soul. Not only that, Le’aupepe and his mates believe that you’re almost certainly worth saving. In a song called “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane,” David croons and shouts and screams:
Do not let this thing you got go to waste.
Do not let your heart be dismayed.
It’s here by some random disclosure of grace.
Later, he sings,
Say yes to grace!
Say no to spite!
Say yes to me!
Say yes to love!
Say yes to life!”
These are not theological or metaphorical invitations. Several years ago, David’s friends — including the boys on stage with him right now — helped David survive a nearly successful suicide attempt. This is personal.
In Australia, Gang of Youths fills stadiums and arenas. In Philly, you can throw an empty beer cup from the front of the stage to the back of the room. The band smiles and laughs and sings along with fans. We all know all the words. David hops off the stage and into the crowd. He hugs a lot of us. To my left, a woman from Melbourne is crying. She’s visiting the U.S. for work and stumbled upon the concert by accident. Now she just finished dancing with the lead singer of her favorite band.
The show comes to a close but not before David implores us to “look after each other. Say sorry to each other. Forgive each other. Talk to each other. Let the world know you will not yield, and that your spirit will not kneel today.” He pounds his fist on his heart, opens his arms wide as if he’d like to give us all one more embrace, then walks off the tiny stage with his friends.
The lights come up. There is no encore. Nearby, a big man wipes a tear from his face and points at the now-empty stage: “Those guys are special.”
I agree, but I’m curious, so I ask, “Why do you say that?”
“They take great joy in what they do. Plus they’re really good at it. On top of all that, I think they love each other a lot, and it seems that they love all of us, too,” he said. “It’s awesome when we get to stand in a place where joy and love are cool.”
Around us, the room is now lit by a set of uncomfortably bright fluorescents. Despite the fact that we’ve spent the last several hours on our feet beneath a barrage of amplified feedback and power chords, nobody’s really moving toward the exits. Rather, we’re all sort of milling around, grinning at each other, making friends with strangers. Honestly, it feels more like coffee and donut time after Mass than sticky beer on the floor time in a Philly basement after midnight.
Random disclosure of grace, indeed.