LUTZ — In the church on the stage by a tall white cross stood a man with a red guitar. He flexed his facial muscles as he played, the way guitarists do when they reach a crescendo, and the sound was swift and warm, like a solar wind. In his abandon he jerked the neck so hard that the capo went flying and bounced at his feet.
The man was Jeff Calhoun. He had searched a long time for the fleeting transcendence that comes when musicians lock together just right. He had tasted it in jazz clubs, in recording studios, at outdoor shows with the Lexington Philharmonic, but now he believed that feeling was nothing less than the physical presence of God.
Calhoun believed all good things were from God. He could see divine architecture in the curves of a lily and the seed patterns of a kiwi fruit. All through Scripture he could see people using their talents to glorify God: Solomon with the temple, David with the harp. Calhoun had a guitar, a Paul Reed Smith McCarty the color of a Lambert cherry, capable of emitting face-melting solos like those of Carlos Santana and Prince.
Calhoun was convinced he could simultaneously praise God and rock hard. But to do it he would need a good drummer.
Today he hoped to find one.
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Calhoun was executive director of worship at Van Dyke Church, a member of the United Methodists. Around him was a rock band, minus the anguish and the smoke.
The lead singer and songwriter was Josh Helms, voice clear and unpretentious, denim frayed in all the right places, with a habit of kicking out his left leg when he reached the chorus and sang the name of Jesus.
Then there was Gene Cowherd, a guitarist and anthropology student; Cody O'Loughlin, the barefoot bassist; and finally, auditioning for the role of drummer, Alfred C. Smith III.
We are very rock oriented and worship focused, Helms had written in a Craigslist ad. This is a paid position but the following things are a must. Play to a click track or loop, we do on every song. Have studio experience — we do a lot of live and studio recording. Ability to create and adapt, we do a lot of original material. MOST IMPORTANT — you must have a heart for the Lord and a passion for worship.
On this Tuesday afternoon, Smith was trying out for a place at the controls of a high-tech praise machine. If he got the gig, he would have access to electronic equipment kept in a locked room and protected by fingerprint scanner. His volume levels would be monitored by room-analyzing software. His drumbeats would follow the click track, the digital metronome pumping in his ears to synchronize the band with video sequences and pulsating lights.
From the back of the room in the sound booth, technical director Corey Schob gave Smith a test: He turned off the click track to see if Smith could keep the tempo unassisted.
Smith had been drumming since age 7, playing in churches nearly that long. He was 27 now, working by day in a music-supply warehouse, but he took worship music more seriously than any other endeavor. He believed the band was there to usher the congregation over the threshold into the presence of the Lord.
Smith could count time in his head and feel rhythm in his bones. He struck the snare with the exact same intensity on every beat. He had tested himself many times before, starting a song with the click track, turning it off in the middle, then turning it back on near the end to see if he matched up.
Now Schob measured his speed, with a complex beat-counting system that used Stars and Stripes Forever as a baseline.
"Pretty hot," said O'Loughlin, the barefoot bassist.
Pretty hot. Calhoun had his drummer. And the band played on in the empty sanctuary, Helms singing and kicking, Smith tap-tap-tapping, Calhoun channeling Eric Johnson on Cliffs of Dover: a humble offering, guided by click track and speaker wire, rising up toward the rafters.
Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake @sptimes.com or (813) 226-3416.