Sing to the Lord a New Song

Christian rock crosses over in the City of Brotherly Love.

Swami-like and pedagogical in skullcap, glasses, corduroy blazer, and striped tie, with the first Beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”) tattooed on his wrists, Aaron Weiss steps into the street after his band’s sound check and is promptly cornered by a young man wearing a homemade Aaron Weiss T-shirt. The young man has questions, questions; Weiss nods, smiles, radiates. The world is looking very worldly this evening, in Philadelphia’s Chinatown—the dazed conventioneers issuing from the nearby 1,400-room Marriott; the seamed faces of the homeless—but here outside the Trocadero Theatre, we’re running a slight spiritual temperature. Local theophile band mewithoutYou is playing a sold-out show, and the air holds the possibility that the kingdom of God, if it doesn’t descend to Earth tonight, will at least lower itself by a couple of inches.

Oh, to be a young believer in Philadelphia right now, where the spirit of Christian activism is mingling vigorously with an apparently unkillable strain of old-school countercultural Jesus-freakery. Here, if you’re listening, you’ll hear hosannas on the streets, and a flavor of tambourines. A band called Psalters mounts an ululating, multi-drum offensive against the capitalist hegemony. They dress the part, too—if you saw this lot coming on a dark night, you’d run. The dreadlocked Shane Claiborne is here, author of The Irresistible Revolution (2006) and a leader of a movement known as the New Monasticism. Claiborne co-founded the Simple Way community in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood in 1998, and the area has since grown to include a branch of the young storefront evangelical church Circle of Hope. Weiss typically visits Circle of Hope on Sundays, before dropping by the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship in West Philly. (Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was a Sufi sage to whose teaching Weiss’s parents introduced him.)

Video: “January 1979” by mewithoutYou

MewithoutYou’s musical progress, since the band’s late 2001 inception, has been a four-album arc from soul-quaking post-punk to a kind of misfit bucolic opera. The new album, it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright, is quaint, rapturous, excessive, ventilated by tubas and campfire sing-alongs: “What a beautiful God, what a beautiful God, what a beautiful God there must be!” The sound would actually make a nice fit with the “freak folk” scene—Joanna Newsom, early Animal Collective, and so on—except that that scene, insofar as it has a religious bias at all, tilts away from Christianity and toward post-’60s neopaganism. “I don’t believe in desert religions,” sniffs my local indie bellwether. “I believe in the forest.”

Mike Weiss, Aaron’s brother and bandmate, was a student at Temple University and an acolyte of straight edge—the scowling, ascetic ideology that emerged out of early hard-core punk—when he was drawn into the orbit of an evangelical church. “I resisted it,” he explains over a preshow plate of pad Thai. “I was in a band called I Hate You, and I was trying to reconcile this newfound faith in Jesus with this band where we were talking about people beating the crap out of you if you’re going to smoke a cigarette in front of me. But I was drawn to it because it was so fundamental. You know, you go around handing out tracts to people, making sure that they know that if they don’t get right with God, the Rapture’s going to come and they’ll get left behind.”

Gradually evolving away from fundamentalism, the Weiss brothers and three friends formed mewithoutYou, whose lyrics—screamed, muttered, chanted, or Beat-istically declaimed by Aaron—are the chronicle of a sustained personal push me/pull you with one’s Maker: “You might seem too strong to surrender, boy,” warns a voice in 2002’s “The Ghost.” “But you’re far too frail to fight.” They signed with Tooth & Nail, the Seattle-based label that has led the pack in establishing Christian rock as a parallel musical universe. Want Christian grunge? Christian metal? Christian indie? Christian emo? Christian screamo? In 2009, you can have it all, and a lot of it is on Tooth & Nail. MewithoutYou, the label’s most interesting act, might also be its most heretical: having spiraled along the spiritual trajectory of its mercurial singer, the band now wraps up its live set with what can only be described as a Sufi worship song: “In everyone we meet / Allah, Allah, Allah!/ In everyone we meet.”

The kids, not appreciably cleaner or less inked-and-pierced than your average rock rabble, love Aaron Weiss. And he loves them back. But stardom is a vexation. Electrifyingly present as a front man—onstage he’ll stand with feet together and elbows tucked in, as if forcing himself through a narrow space, before detonating into a sudden harlequin dance—he also seems somehow on the point of disappearance. “I guess I’m reluctant to talk about God as if I understand what God is doing,” he tells me before the show, “but whoever’s in charge—whoever put me here and whoever sees me and really understands me—really won’t leave me alone, won’t let me rest with those things that, deep down, I know are vain and selfish.” And so he recedes, through phases of Bob Dylan–esque self-abnegation, while his band pushes forward with its bliss-filled racket. The audience at the Troc knows every word: “I do not exist… Only You exist… I do not exist…”