Josh Brown looks every bit the part of the ascetic rocker backstage at Caf’ Jam on Greensboro’s High Point Road. Dressed in pine green khakis, a white T-shirt, tattoos covering his arms, neck and knuckles, he swigs from a water bottle and strums an acoustic guitar. Day of Fire has been recording its third album, tentatively titled Losing All, at Echo Mountain Recording in Asheville. EagleRock International Ministries of Music’s TL Lineberry, who goes by Pastor T, found out about the session and invited the Nashville band to play a one-off at his venue. Day of Fire has signed with Razor & Tie, and they’re eager to try out some new songs on the modest-sized audience here tonight. Brown first achieved renown in a band called Full Devil Jacket in the late 1990s that rode the crest of a wave of postgrunge hard rock. In a genre that emphasized vocal prowess, his emotional commitment and technical range stood out. Seven years ago, he quit Full Devil Jacket, and after a three-year break from music started Day of Fire under the Christian-rock banner. “I used to be a crazed drug addict, crack-smoking, heroinshooting person, but I had an encounter that changed my life,” he says. “This rock and roll has a conscience and a purpose.” He takes pains to point out that there is no separate Christian music industry, that the labels are somewhat artificial. “The whole secular- and non-secular things, that’s just a marketing ploy,” he says. “When companies put Christian and non-Christian labels on music, that’s just to sell more records.” Indeed, the themes of loss and adversity — “walking through life feeling like the rug’s been pulled out from under you,” as Brown puts it — on the album are likely to resonate with any fan seeking a community of fellow sufferers. He quotes Scripture without seeming to preach. “The word says, ‘In this world you have trouble, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world,’” Brown says. “Life does not quit throwing itself at you just because you believe in God. It continues to throw itself at you and, in fact, it throws itself at you even harder.” Opening for Day of Fire tonight is a band with members from Greensboro and Trinity called the Heel the Serpent whose music could be described as inspired math rock with trombone. Singer Austin Cooke, a skinny young man with a mane of flaming red hair and a full beard introduces them onstage: “We are the Heel the Serpent, but that’s not why we’re here tonight. We’re here to worship, and I want you to feel free to do everything you’re led to do.” He certainly does that, prostrating himself, stalking the stage. Sweat glistening on his forehead, he puts the microphone aside and bellows a sermon between songs, raging against the crucifixion. (“They drove nails into his hands! They drove nails into his feet!”) Cooke gives the testimony of the prodigal son, seemingly a prerequisite for any Christian-rock front man. “If you think you’re going through something I haven’t been through, you’re probably wrong,” he says. “I’ve done the drugs, I’ve drank the drink, I’ve treated women like trash, I’ve been to the parties, I’ve hated my family. I’ve hated my church family. I’ve turned my back on everyone associated with church.” Day of Fire is an entirely different animal. They take the stage as a well-oiled rock-and-roll quartet with a workmanlike drummer powering the vehicle and signaling dynamic shifts, a flannel-clad bass player laying down a rumbling undercurrent and a guitar player dressed in a fedora affixed with a peacock feather plucking soaring solos out of the jetstream. Brown is restrained in his remarks between songs, saving his passion for the music. They play new songs like “Line ’Em Up,” “River,” “Cold Addiction,” “Hello Heartache,” “Airplane” and “Never Goodbye” with obvious relish. There are elements of trashy glam, blazing-guitar Southern rock and agit-punk that power underneath Brown’s vocals. Those vocals range from Lennon-Cobain-style confessionalism to growly machismo and heartfelt country sensitivity. He rages like a prizefighter, and relates tales of addiction and broken relationships, expresses affection for friends lost, shifting through a range of emotions with natural ease. Seeing Day of Fire confirms the adage that great music transcends genre and ultimately makes genre distinctions meaningless. Forget about the line drawn between secular and Christian music. Day of Fire is getting really good. The crowd of ’90s-era hard-rock fans and their children, dudes wearing moustaches, ball caps and Mohawks, and multigenerational cheer when the band rips into “Cornerstone,” a popular song from Day of Fire’s 2004 debut album. They play a new song, and exit the stage, with the audience calling for an encore, and requesting “Rain Song,” another track from the first record. After awhile, Brown returns with an acoustic guitar, plugging it in with some help from guitarist Joe Pangallo. He has a song called “Aileen” that was slated for the new album, but didn’t make it. It will be his first time playing it live. He explains how the song was inspired by the story of Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute and serial killer portrayed in the 2003 movie Monster. “Most people say, ‘How can somebody do something like that?’” Brown says. “When I saw that movie I said to myself: ‘I really let that person down…. I’m really a selfish person, and I really only think of myself most of the time. It’s easier for me to point the finger than to help out.” Then he leans into the hard-strummed chords of his guitar, reaches for the gut and stuns us all with the song’s coarse poetry.
Day of Fire, with Josh Brown (left) and Joe Pangallo, previewedsongs from their new album, tentatively titled Losing All, at Cafe Jamin Greensboro on March 19. (photos by Jordan Green)