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On This Church, I Shall Build My Rock

In the beginning, God created 21-and-over clubs and bars. And he saw that it was good. But soon he saw that kids were making fake IDs to get into the clubs, which was not so good. So on the sixth day he took a stage from the heart of the club and put it into the church, creating an all-ages concert environment that he could oversee, and he saw that it rocked.

By Claire Taylor

LIKE THEIR counterparts all over the country, suburban teens in Silicon Valley inevitably complain that there's nothing to do in their town. They kill time in all the usual ways: play Grand Theft Auto into the wee hours, watch the worst of B-movies, rack up their parents' cell phone minutes, drink and get high, surf porn and MySpace—anything to bide time until they're legal or can finagle a fake ID.

One thing they usually do not want to do is go to church. Until now.

Churches have long been used for events other than Sunday-morning worship, including weddings, funerals and fundraisers. But in recent months, a number of church-based concert venues have cropped up in the South Bay. The result is a network where, on most any given weekend evening, you can find South Bay churches transformed into all-age venues, hosting punk, indie, emo and even metalcore shows.

Packed Houses Of the Holy

On a Friday night in south San Jose, the Portable is hosting a concert featuring indie bands the Portrait, Eager Seas, Olympic Year, Fighting Jacks and Division Day. Entering the parking lot, I can tell that the crowd is young, with cars parked haphazardly and the Bravery bumping from a parents' borrowed SUV. Inside, teenage and college-age cliques congregate in the corners of the church and come together in a small mob when the band begins tuning and sound checking. Once the band gets going, kids toward the front bob their heads in unison to the kick drum and snare. A few girls dance, arms linked, and sing along, giggling during the bridge and requesting songs.

"Shows are pretty much all around the same, because it's the same kids going to every show; the people I saw last night are the same people I see at every show, I just don't know their names or them personally," says Rachel Corrales, a Presentation High School junior who attended the Portable show. "Local shows are awesome like that."

After the last note clears, the bands thank the crowd for showing up, pack up their gear and cool down behind the merch tables, hoping to get some cash to put toward recording. Kids hang around outside between sets, kicking rocks and shooting the breeze, but they stick around as late as their curfew allows; they often have to wait for weeks just to find a decent local show without having to travel to San Francisco. And most parents would say that hour-long jaunt is a no-go on a school night.

Whatever Happened To the Devil's Music?

Christian bands helped pave the way for rock music to be OKed by the church, even in the stiffest starched-shirted Catholic sects, melding odes to the beloved savior with a 4/4 beat.

But these South Bay shows aren't extensions of Sunday-morning worship. Some of the bands writhe and foam as their lead singers growl and screech out their lyrics. Others play their guitars with abandon, jumping across the stage in a Super Mario-esque fashion.

Obviously the kids are in it for the rock, but what do churches get out of it? Well, it is tempting to think that when considering their in-roads so far against sex, drugs and rock & roll, they decided that two out of three ain't bad. But the truth is that religious youth groups have gotten a hell of a lot hipper, and cool shows can make a pretty good outreach tool for churches, which have never been known for their indie cred.

One of the newest church-based venues is the Satellite, part of the youth group at Twin Oaks Church in south San Jose. Since late last year, the Satellite has hosted monthly concert nights, where five bands, Christian or not, play for a cover charge of $5. On regular youth-group nights, the Satellite hosts up to three bands at no cost. Todd Schuster, who previously worked with the Cave as well as the House of Blues in Southern California, is in charge of booking and promoting the shows, and Charlton Scullard, the church's pastor of student ministries, heads the youth group.

"Our drive and approach is to build a student relationship," Scullard says. "We don't want to preach to them."

The Cave, which began operating as a music venue in September of last year, has become one of the most consistent all-ages venues in the area. Located on the grounds of Father's House church in east San Jose, the Cave holds regular shows on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as the occasional Thursdays and Sundays. Andrus Iljin, booker for the Cave, says Father's House "sees a great opportunity to give the kids a safe place to be."

A more established venue in area is the Portable, stationed out of South Valley Christian Church in south San Jose. Brad Prather, pastor of college ministry at South Valley, says the church invited a few big-name Christian acts, such as Plankeye and Sonicflood, to play six or seven years ago and decided to open the church to local acts after being approached by students in the high school ministry.

"We knew that there were a lot of people who wanted to go to shows, and it was just something some guys within our youth ministries wanted to do," he says. Aside from these churches, venues such as the Hall at Apostles Lutheran Church in south San Jose and the Pillar at Saratoga Federated Church in Saratoga are opening their doors to regular concerts, and there are still more local churches that house the occasional rock show or battle of the bands.

"We're not seen as a club per se," Scullard says of the Satellite. "It's a new thing we're trying. It's interesting how people say they know it's a Christian venue, but they still come."

But Can They Make Pope Jokes?

At the April 1 Portable show, Olympic Year vocalist/guitarist Mike Arnoldi dedicated two of the band's songs to comedian Mitch Hedberg (who passed away at the end of March), Terri Schaivo, the pope and "anyone else who's kicking it lately." That was hardly becoming commentary on a church stage, but it still fell within the range of tolerable activity according to church-based-venue etiquette.

Yes, there are boundaries, but generally they are circumstantial. There may be a teenager wearing a wooden-cross necklace chatting with his friends about church in one corner of the room, while elsewhere another shines a laser light pen on a fellow concertgoer's ass. No one type of kid attends the shows, and most come wearing their own version of Sunday's best: jeans and zip-up hoodies or band T's and Converse All-Stars. But it is rare that anyone comes in wearing anything outright blasphemous or offensive, and even less likely that they would be damned because of it.

Each venue prohibits vulgarity onstage, with most at minimum speaking with the bands or bookers beforehand about the rules governing the shows. The Cave and the Pillar have bands sign an agreement stating that they will keep their language free of profanity, blasphemy and sexual content.

None of the venues has a set protocol if this agreement, verbal or physical, were to be broken, but at the Cave, unless they are damaging the church property, bands won't immediately be kicked off the stage. Iljin says he simply wouldn't invite the bands back to the venue.

"It's not only because of the church property," Iljin says. "I think in any way if you're having an all-age event ... it should be edited in a way that's acceptable for everybody."

There are also rules for the concertgoers at some of the venues, with signs posted on the walls at the Satellite and the Hall and a spoken message prior to concerts at the Pillar.

All of those managing the venues say that they are open to everyone, no matter their religious affiliations (or lack thereof), and aren't aiming to turn away anyone who wants to enjoy the music. Of course, if some band members were to spend a good part of their time onstage sending shoutouts to the Lord, let's just say no one would stop them.

"I think if you go to a show, and there's a Christian band playing, you should expect that they might say something to do with their faith," says Corrales, who hopes to make a career of owning a venue and supporting bands. "Because for some bands, that's a major part of their job ... to spread the word or influence others. So, it's the same thing when you go to a church-based venue, you should expect to see crosses or whatever on the walls."

But this possibility doesn't keep away the concertgoers.

"I have never felt bothered by the venue nor by the bands, because I do know that it's not only Christian bands that play there but it's all bands," says De Anza College student Martha Galvan, who also went to the Portable show and says she's attended multiple church-based concerts without any trouble. "And plus it's not like there's a pastor standing up onstage saying 'Turn or burn!' Not in the least. It's just an atmosphere of enjoying music and discovering new bands."

Brandon Slater, who has set up shows at the Hall and is a vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist for San Jose-based band Moreau, says both bands and fans act accordingly at church-based shows. "Everyone's respectful—first and foremost they know where they are, even if they're not there for a [church service]."

King for a Gig

Ephesians 6:7-8: Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.

"The people who help put it on, they have this thing about being a servant," says Jarrod Headley, drummer and backup vocalist for Novice. "If you go to a normal venue and ask for more guitars in your monitor, they're like, 'No.' But if you go to a church, they're like, 'What can we do for you?' and you're treated like a king."

At the Satellite, the worship band or sound engineers will often set up the incoming bands' equipment for them, if they accept their offer. "We serve them," Scullard says. They also provide free food and refreshments to the bands and concertgoers.

Today many band members feel it's difficult to find shows to play because there are few people booking them and even fewer accessible venues.

One of the only all-ages venues in the area aside from churches is the Gaslighter Theater in Campbell. The Gaslighter hosts rock shows Sunday through Thursday evenings, with Friday and Saturday held for theater events. Because they are all held on school nights, the shows often draw small crowds, and some people will come for only one band because they can't stay out as late. Some bookers have looked to high schools and community centers to host their concerts. The Outhouse, a teen center in Los Gatos, was previously the premiere all-ages venue in the South Bay, with shows booked through Eric Fanali, until the building's board decided to end its longtime agreement with him last year.

Fanali also previously worked with Mitchell Park Community Center in Palo Alto and has since relocated his shows, now much less frequent, to the Nickel City arcade in San Jose and the Santa Cruz Teen Center.

The Cactus Club in downtown San Jose, which was turned into Zoë Nightclub in 2002, was also previously one of the few venues to hold 18-and-over shows for up-and-coming local acts. Slater feels that after the Cactus Club closed, bands' options became scarce.

Jason Roeder, director of high school ministries at Saratoga Federated Church, says he's received a lot of positive feedback from the bands he has hosted at the Pillar. "They're starving for places to play where they actually have a stage—where it's more professional," he says. Because of this "hunger," each of those booking say the venues have a wealth of bands to choose from when setting up shows.

Another plus for bands and bookers is that the sound equipment is virtually all readily in place, as the churches use it for weekly services, youth group worship and other events.

"We've played venues where they've had one mic and one speaker. But with churches, they already have that all set up, and we come in and they accommodate us," Headley says.

Some of the churches are also larger than other local venues and thus able to hold a greater number of concertgoers. Headley says Novice has played shows for up to 600 people at venues such as the Sanctuary, held at South Valley Community Church in Gilroy, and has also drawn large crowds at the Cave, which has a maximum standing capacity of 425, according to Iljin's wife, Stephanie, though Iljin says the biggest show at the Cave brought in 300 people.

Most churches don't ask anything of those putting on the concerts, aside from respect of their rules and property. Technically, they can't accept money because they are nonprofit organizations. Plus, in Luke 16:13, Jesus says, "You cannot serve both God and money."

At the Cave, Iljin says the bands are paid out first, according to which brought in the most fans (who become the equivalent of a tick mark on a tally sheet once they've paid), along with any staff that assisted with the show, and any leftover funds go toward repairing the building and upgrading the sound equipment at the church. This agreement is one way the church benefits without specifically receiving funds.

South Valley charges a small custodial fee of $125 for the Portable's use, Snowden says, and Olympic Year's guitarist/vocalist Dave Cohen says he and others who book shows at the Portable typically give back a little more than is asked, with the rest of the proceeds from the shows going to the hired security, the bands and to purchase water for the bands. Ultimately, it equals minimal cost and a good payoff for the bands, Cohen says—both monetarily and through exposure to potential new fans.

Each band that plays at the Satellite is paid the same amount, between $40 and $60, Scullard says, and on youth-group nights when admission is free, the bands will still be paid with money from the youth ministries budget.

"We really want to bless the bands back," Schuster says. "A lot of them, wherever they go, they don't get paid."

Cohen feels that many other venues are less about the music and more about profits. "I think the motives are different. ... [At other venues] bands kind of get left last when they're the ones who are drawing all the people; it just seems kind of backwards."

One of Us

At these South Bay venues, the churches aren't pushing their message on the incoming audiences, though there are most certainly people willing to speak to them about God. The focus, however, is on the bands and the fans, and religion is checked at the door.

At the Satellite, a large metal cross acting as a candleholder stands to the right of the stage, but that, and the possibility of catching some Hillsong worship video before the start of the show, is the extent of the religious content awaiting concertgoers. Neither the Portable nor the Cave feature religious paraphernalia in the rooms where the concerts are held—nary a cross or Virgin Mary in sight.

Some of the venues, including the Satellite in San Jose, are actually attached to the churches' youth groups and merely play host to outside bands, Christian or otherwise. While no one surveys the bands or concertgoers, those asked to speculate about the population's breakdown wagered half of the band members and concertgoers considered themselves Christian—whether they regularly attend church or just come before the Lord when it's time to rock.

Novice, a four-piece from Hollister, is made up of Christian members, but doesn't consider itself a Christian band. The same goes for Olympic Year, some of whose members have previously acted as the worship band at South Valley. Just because the venue is church affiliated doesn't mean the bands or fans are required to be. "We don't have to have a Christian band," says Schuster of the Satellite. "As long as they can keep their lyrics clean then that's cool."

Scullard and Schuster say they could see today's student culture is in music and wanted to reach out to become a "relevant" force in the students' lives.

"It's more so about relating with them and that's why I love the band nights," Schuster says. "It's cool to be able to speak positive words into their lives."

"[Other events we hold are] churchy; this is very nonchurchy," says Roeder of the Pillar. "We're trying to reach the postmodern generation through their language—their language is music and technology."

Cohen says he began putting on shows at the Portable because "it was pretty accessible for us ... and everything was there, the sound system's there, and it's kind of like a little bit of a double benefit too because the church sees it as bringing in people that would not normally come."

However, "if they don't come to church the next Sunday it hasn't been a failure," says Snowden, pastor at South Valley. He sees the concerts as leadership development for the band members above all else.

The Laws of Man

In order for any location—whether a church or a strip club— to put on a concert, each city has a few of its own Permit Commandments. In the case of live music venues in San Jose, if open to the public, charging a fee and not serving alcohol, Thou Shalt Seek Out an Entertainment Permit.

Along with the entertainment permit, the venue must purchase a business tax license and complete a fire safety inspection to determine the maximum number of people, both seated and standing, the venue can hold and provide that the establishment meets all fire safety code requirements, says San Jose Police Department permits officer Leonard Lim, who is in charge of entertainment permits. That will cost about $600, and the entertainment permit alone must be renewed every two years.

However, Lim says that as nonprofit organizations, churches may only need a class B dance permit. This permit is easier and less expensive to obtain and can be purchased as late as two weeks prior to the event, along with a required day-use permit. However, this is technically only an option if the music is solely for church members.

Luckily, churches exist in a grey area—anyone can become a member. In terms of the dance permit, people could be considered members and part of a congregation by merely setting foot into a house of worship, because they are thereby subjecting themselves to the ideologies promoted there and no one has to sign up to become part of a church.

"Churches do have membership, but anyone can come to the church, it's not a closed-door policy," says Satellite's Scullard. "How do you classify that?" Iljin says the Cave is acting as a church department, and therefore doesn't need any special permits from the city.

"The thing is, the Cave is not separate from the church, it is part of the church and under the church bylaws," he says.

Shows held at the Pillar are also classified, by those at the church, as a church activity, says Roeder. The concerts are nonprofit events held once a month, so as far as they're concerned, the church is not acting as a business or a concert venue.

Scott Snowden, pastor of facilities at South Valley, doesn't feel that the church-based venues are equivalent to traditional concert venues. "Because we're not a club downtown, we just promote it as a youth ministry event," he says.

"We're not trying to run afoul of permits."

No church has been shut down for hosting a rock show ... yet.

"Just because it wasn't enforced doesn't mean it can continue to be done," Lim says, though he agrees that it isn't a black-and-white issue. "That's the one thing about penal and muni codes," he says, "they make it kind of subjective and open for interpretation."

Protecting the Flock

A security guard stands post outside the Portable, wearing a police officer's uniform and chatting with a middle-aged woman, likely someone's mother. He doesn't eyeball the kids flowing in and out of the venue, but provides a presence and patrols the grounds as necessary.

"We make sure there's no one making out in the back. If we have one incident and people hear about it, it could hurt us," Scullard says of security at the Satellite.

The bookers for the venues say they bring in outside security officers to guard the facilities and help ensure there is ample staff to quickly extinguish any potential trouble. Even with security, the shows haven't been completely without problems. A previous booker for the Portable had gotten lax and allowed cigarette smoking at the venue, Cohen says, which is illegal because the church is on Oak Grove School District property. Prather also says that there was graffiti found on the property once ("We almost shut the thing down after that," he says). But Snowden says because the church is on school-owned grounds and situated next to St. Stephen's Episcopal School, it's hard to know who's to blame when those types of problems occur.

There was one incident at the Satellite when some people were found drinking outside, but Scullard says they left without any argument after being asked to leave. Iljin says there have been occasional altercations at the Cave, but that that is why he hires security guards and attempts to book shows with similar-style bands to make sure there is no "clash of scenes."

On Jan. 1 of this year, there was a stabbing at a show that was initially set to be held at the Cave but later moved to the Mount Hamilton Grange Hall in east San Jose. The victim spent the night in the hospital. Corrales says the victim is a friend of a friend. "That's something that shouldn't happen at shows," she says. "I've always felt safe at shows, and my friends have as well, and for something like that to happen was really difficult to understand because I couldn't imagine someone having a knife at a local show."

At a recent Satellite show featuring Fremont-based band Broken Winter, a San Jose police officer showed up to check out the goings on and Satellite staff were asked to round up the loitering kids and bring them inside. However, the concert wasn't canceled and there were no issues with the noise level or number of concertgoers.

Another concern for some is mosh pits and other wild dancing, which are permitted at Cave shows "as long as they are under control," Iljin says. The Satellite has the same policy, and Scullard says the hired security will keep an eye on the crowd if they occur. However, the pits will immediately be disbursed if anyone gets hurt.

Another plus for some is the fact that these venues are "chemical-free zones," meaning there are no drugs or alcohol allowed on the premises. "[These venues are] free from drunk people that would probably cause riots," says Galvan, a fan of local act Efata. "The Catalyst Club in Santa Cruz I know serves alcohol and so does the Gaslighter in Campbell, and well, there's always someone who's had a bit too much to drink and could make people feel uncomfortable if they just roam around the venue and be all loud."

Precautions such as these help to ease parents' minds, say some of the concertgoers. "I know to parents, if their teenager says, 'It's at a church,' it offers a sense of security that their child will be at a safe place. ... God, I used to tell my parents every place was a church," Corrales says.

Totally Crossed Out, Can Ya Comprehend?

Back at the Portable show, the crowd is chill, waiting for Fighting Jacks to take the stage. A thin stream of kids return from the parking lot, a twentysomething checking their hands for smeared black stamps indicating they've already paid. But by the close of the evening, it's one show that will disappear from the calendar, and the kids are back to cruising band websites or MySpace to find out when they can get their next concert fix.

"Whether it's at a church or not, people just want to go and see the band they love play and support them," Corrales says. "I mean, I'd go to see Fighting Jacks or any of the bands that played [at the Portable] last night in, like, an alley if they were playing in one."

John Frothingham, who recently attended a Showbread/Novice show at the Cave, agrees that it doesn't matter where a concert is held. "A building is a building. A cross on the roof really doesn't change anything."

Whether the city decides to intervene and force the permit issue, it's still likely some house of God will remain open to rock, providing the venues local kids so desperately want.

"Churches wouldn't have these shows if they weren't successful [at] getting people out and keeping the scene alive," says Slater from Moreau. "Because without the churches there wouldn't be a scene."

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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