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The 1998 North-Central Iowa
Spring Break Blizzard Tour
Nathaniel Lee Hansen

One way to describe the tour is like this: almost everything went wrong, almost nothing went right. If we had been seeking a sign from the Lord as to whether this Christian rock band was, in fact, His calling on our lives, we would have observed that the events of these three days created an eight-foot snow bank that featured an ALL CAPS, bold-faced, underlined, italicized, red NO spray painted against the white pile.

But we weren’t looking for any kind of sign, at least I wasn’t. The offer of the tour was the sign. While other college students in Minnesota and across the country plotted balmy debauchery and revelry, the four of us in Incarnate Son (Mike, Matt, Jen, and me) were going on tour. For the Lord! We weren’t traveling just anywhere to win the lost; we were booked to play two shows in North-Central Iowa towns of 4,000 and 2,000 people, respectively. What better spring-break destination than these sub-tropical hot spots in mid-March? Three nights at a bed and breakfast, meals, and $200 in exchange for playing a Sunday-night show at a local high school and a Monday-night show at a newly created teen center. We had hit the big time.

On that Friday afternoon as spring break begins, Jen (our keyboard player and other vocalist) and I make several trips across the Southwestern Minnesota campus to my station wagon, hauling guitar cases, amps, mic stands, equipment bags, and a keyboard. I suspect others see a holy aura around us. I feel self-important because I am important. I am beginning to live my dream. This is a foretaste of the feast to come. I imagine the conversations that might transpire once classes resume:

Other student: So how was your break, what do you do? Was it sunny?

Me: I went on tour with my band, Incarnate Son. We played two shows to two packed houses.

Other student: I just lay on the beach at Corpus Christi for a week.

Me: We really ministered to the communities. We saw lives changed, and people were set free. It was awesome!

Other student: I drank so much beer and had some casual sex, but now just hearing about your ministry makes me want to repent of those things and kneel down right here in this snowbank and accept Christ. Will you pray with me?

 I hope the weekend’s shows will lead to more shows, to more opportunities. We must play more gigs, play in more places if we want this Christian rock band to gather enough runway speed to take off, so that the layovers between gigs won’t be weeks or months. I would be delighted to play shows every weekend, so I view this tour (to switch the metaphor) as a watershed moment, a moment when the water’s momentum will (ideally) wash us up to higher ground.

On Friday evening, the four of us gathered at Mike’s parents’ country house (our usual rehearsal space since high school), and we are forced to acknowledge the first potential problem. There is talk of a winter storm, March being the worst month for blizzards in the upper Midwest. We are nervous, memories surfacing of our two-gig weekend in November 1996 when we drove three hours in an ice storm that ended up being one of the worst in Minnesota’s history. We run through song after song, afterward attempting to relax by playing pool, taking our minds off the weather (as much as we can). Jen says she isn’t feeling well, but in the bluntness required for being in a group with three guys says, “Don’t worry, it’s just my period. I’ll be better by tomorrow night.” We call it good at 10:30 (early for us) and agree to meet back at nine on Saturday morning to finalize the set list, run through each song once, and load the vehicles. That night, I doubt any of us sleeps very well.

 On Saturday morning, I pick up Matt from his parent’s house (just two blocks from my folks’ place), and as we drive the quiet three miles out to Mike’s house, our duffle bags packed and ready for the trip, the sky is the heavy, low-hanging gray we fear. None of us drinks coffee yet, so we rely on cans of Cherry Coke and Mountain Dew.

I use a spiral notebook, and we hash out Sunday night’s setlist, arranging ten songs in the first set and six in the second. Tim Rogan will preach between our two sets. We run through each song, in order, while trying to ignore the obvious changes in the weather. By the time we finish, and we are reviewing transitions between songs, the snow falls steadily against the backdrop of barren trees that line the hill descending down to the river valley. We are native Minnesotans, so snow, by default, should not necessarily prevent the show from going on.

But now the second problem surfaces, a problem directly related to the first. While Matt and I begin unplugging cables, Mike leaves for a few minutes and then returns. His shoulder-length hair sways as he shakes his head. “Mom and Dad say I can’t go.”

“Why?” I ask in a voice too loud and too accusatory, but I know the answer: the weather. He is driving one of their vehicles. I also think, we all have to go, or we can’t go at all. Before I attempt to strong-arm the situation, I announce that I’m going to call Dave, the promoter.

Mike says to go ahead, but that it probably won’t do any good.

“How’s the weather down there?” I begin, unsure about how this conversation will proceed.

“Fine. Why?”

“It’s snowing here. There’s talk about a blizzard. We’re not sure if we should leave.”

“Well, it’s not snowing here,” he says, his reply so quick that I don’t expect it, that I am not prepared with what I’ll say next. “It’s fine,” he adds.

“Here’s the thing.” And I inform him that Mike’s parents might not let him go.

Dave chuckles, yet only for a moment.

It sounds ridiculous, I’m sure. A drummer in a band not being allowed to go to a gig. Dave keeps circling back to the fact that the weather is fine there. “And Tim Rogan is coming from Ireland. This is a big outreach to the area and especially to the youth.” He tells me about the promotion: the posters around the communities, the write-ups in the local newspapers, even a mention on an area radio station. More than that, souls are at stake. I know this. We know this. We have an agreement, but we haven’t signed anything; there isn’t even a contract.

I am conflicted and tell him I’ll call back soon.

I hand up the ivory-colored phone and stare at my three bandmates as they sit in the basement rec room, walls lined with VHS tapes and Nintendo games. There is no discernable joy or excitement in their faces. Another obvious sign to which I am oblivious.

“He says it’s fine there. That we shouldn’t have any problem getting there.” It is only a two-hour drive.

“We should just cancel,” Mike says, sullen.

“No way,” I say. “We have two shows. This is a big chance.”

Matt is quiet as always, and Jen doesn’t speak. This is a battle of wills between Mike and me, and I am trying to get my way. The show must go on.

“Fine. I’ll try talking to my folks again.” Mike’s frustration and lack of interest should be another sign to me, but it isn’t, because I want to win the battle.

“Tell them it’s fine there.”

He leaves the room to negotiate. And now I wonder what his parents said to him before, what they say to him now.

An hour later, however, we are loaded up in two vehicles and trekking to North-Central Iowa.

 

The storm lands Saturday night while we are holed up in a bed and breakfast that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting. Sunday morning it is a challenge to travel to the little storefront church that is sponsoring us and which Dave attends.

The prayers from the people after church and before the pot-luck lunch:

“Lord, we just know you’re going to do amazing things tonight.”

From a teenage boy: “Lord, we know that there will be many salvations tonight. I believe, Lord, you’re telling me that twelve people are going to be saved.”

From a middle-aged woman: “Lord, we’re praying that lives will be transformed.”

From the pastor’s wife: “We pray that the devil wouldn’t allow this weather to keep people from the evening.”

I am all for being optimistic, but the snow continues through the afternoon. The show must go on, the saying goes, in the midst of foolishness and futility.

At show time, as we stroll onto the high school auditorium stage, the lights dim, but we see maybe three dozen people, all of them from the church. Mike counts us off on the sticks, and we launch into the chunky opening riff of “Exodus,” a riff which is essentially a rip-off of “The Mirror” by Dream Theater, one of our favorite bands. The sound is loud, as it should be, and I am playing the bass line through Dave’s bass cabinet, complete with four ten-inch speakers. With the sound system, with floor monitors (a luxury we are not accustomed to in our typical primitive setups), we have more power and volume propelling us forward. Matt’s electric is loud and thick. Mike is a frenzy of energy and double-kick fills. My voice feels good and full, the floor monitors helping, and Jen locks in her harmony vocals with my leads. For the first time on the trip, I am enjoying myself.

The people respond in kind. The high-school kids, the moms, all of them move their bodies to the rock and metal that we offer. We travel from song to song, riding along with the energy they give us, until we have finished the first set—all ten songs—and we have done what we have come for. Now it is time for Tim Rogan to deliver what he came from Ireland to deliver.

We exit the stage, climb the stairs to the balcony, and sit in a row. The suit-clad evangelist clips on his lapel mic, and then he is off. Fire and brimstone delivered from a bare-headed tall man with a thick Irish accent. His text is from Paul’s letter to the Romans about how those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. He pummels his way through the list, hammering on each in his brogue. We squirm in our chairs. He implores us to repent, to come forward, but no one in the entire gym stirs. I think that maybe one of us should get up, just to give him some sense of accomplishment, that the task he has been invited to perform yields something besides a stunned small audience. But his invitation is also our cue to return to the stage and play our song, “I Give You My Life,” an altar call song if there ever was one. “I give you my life / I surrender myself, / Do with me what you will, Lord,” I sing in the chorus.

 While we play, no one walks forward. No one runs forward. No one escorts anyone to the front. No arms around the shaking body of a friend. Our music doesn’t need to cover up the voices of those praying, the voices of the saved and the newly saved, the sobs of joy as people are being undone, the silent sobs of relief that someone came forward to “accept Christ” and “be saved.” We play the outro of the song, and there stands Tim Rogan, his arms outstretched, Bible in one hand.

We launch into five more driving songs to finish out the concert, ending with a blues tune: “God Don’t Lie.” People clap, and there is a genuine sense of joy. Our wall of sound stops, and the house lights blast on in full brightness. We have played well, no major missteps or missed cues, a chemistry born, perhaps, of desperation and freedom (seeing as there is no one we really know in the audience). From an evangelistic standpoint, of course, the evening is a roadside accident scene.

I find myself wondering how much Tim Rogan was paid to do what he did.

While church members help us strike the stage, Mike is demonstrating (to a kid who asks) a drum fill he used on one song. He’s not even playing his nine-piece kit, just air-drumming, and I’m seeing all of this out of the corner of my eye, half paying attention because I’m packing up my bass. Mike inadvertently hits his hand on the side of his leg, as though he’s mimicking hitting the floor tom. He winces, but I don’t think anything of it. Mike is, after all, the biggest comedian of the bunch, the guy who wears a black t-shirt with the image of “Animal” (from The Muppets) playing drums.

 

Monday is a blizzard of other disasters. All the area schools are canceled. Over a foot of snow and counting, the wind still blowing out of the north at a steady clip of twenty miles-per-hour. Mike’s hand is swollen, stiff, and sore; there is no way he can play drums. The pain reliever he took Sunday night and Monday morning hasn’t helped. Jen announces that she no longer wants to be in the band, that she wants to focus on her own songwriting and acoustic style. Mike then decides to head back to his parents’ house, something the three of us wish we could do too, and an awkward scene occurs at lunch wherein Dave practically demands that his church’s drummer fill in for Mike at tonight’s gig. But I stay my ground, say out of respect for Mike that we don’t have another drummer, won’t have another drummer. Instead we play a stripped down “unplugged”-style show, Jen playing acoustic guitar, Matt playing his electric, and me playing Steve’s twelve-string. All to Dave’s disappointment. Again, there are, at most, thirty people in a partially remodeled basement with Bible verses painted on the white walls. And again, Tim Rogan delivers his fiery exhortations, and again, no one comes forward.

When the wreck of Monday evening is over, we don’t even stay the third night, though the B&B is paid for, as Dave reminds us when we thank him and tell him we are leaving, the snow having finally stopped earlier that evening. He must think us an impulsive and immature lot. Matt rides back to parents’ house with his girlfriend, Liz, who has made the trip with a few college friends. Jen and I drive back to our college, not returning to the deserted campus until past two in the morning, both of us exhausted, barely awake.

We survive, but barely. And it is ten months until our next show.

 

Nathaniel Lee Hansen is the author of the chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian: Poems (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2014). He teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor where he also serves as editor of Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and director of the annual Windhover Writers’ Festival.

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