The Big Paradox

Only in the rarest instances is a band's chosen name relevant to anything. (Names given to bands, on the other hand...) When too much is made of a moniker, it's usually at the hands of some naive and marginally literate music writer, desperate for something semi-interesting to write, concerned mostly about his job. Maybe that's the case here, but while we're not sure (and don't care) how and what for this particular foursome selected its appellation, Big Love couldn't be more descriptive, fitting, on the mark.

Big Love's music, and the members themselves, must be called involving, like a good book, like the Good Book, open to interpretations and extrapolations even in the face of a satisfying consistency. Their sound is not all over the place, but you can take it where you want to go. With song titles such as "I Am the Way" and "Enter In" and "Realize," the Christian implications can't be denied or ignored, but they shouldn't be made too much of, either. These songs offer rich ground ripe for exploration even among purely secular listeners.

For example, in the spectacularly heartfelt and chaotically energetic rage of "Safety Dies (When You're Living on the Edge)," where guitars blaze and drums sizzle with the heat of Satan's own home, Big Love asks the million-dollar question: "You need something to hold on to/Is it God?" Critics jump on that line the way faith healers jump on the old and infirm, but few bother to go the next step, to the next lyric: "Or just yourself?"

And we're not going to make that other naive mistake of claiming that the secret essence of Big Love is "a chemistry" among the members. But . Two of the Lovers, guitarist Chip Allen and bassist Danny Petkevich (both of whom contribute vocals as well) work for Fortune 500 corporations, firmly entrenched in the career mainstream, ties and all. The others, singer/guitarist Jorge Leni Respeto and drummer Jim Scott, are college students. None of the four share completely similar tastes in music. They come from varied backgrounds, musical and otherwise. Respeto and Petkevich have wives, Allen and Scott are bachelors. And even so, these four comprise one of the closest knit and most effectively team-oriented outfits currently making South Florida, despite itself, despite the cliques and power plays and general bullshit, one of the hottest rock-and-roll hubs in the nation.

"Remember, Chip and I were students before doing the corporate thing," notes Petkevich. "I was the first one in my family to ever graduate college. I come from a blue-collar background and I haven't lost touch." Nonetheless, those pursuing academic achievements are notoriously short on cash, while corporate execs tend to carry weighty wallets. Money, like nothing else in life, can exacerbate tensions, create personal conflict. "I put up the money for our first demo," Petkevich says. "To me, it's a wonderful opportunity to be able to do that. Materialism builds barriers. Possessions possess you. But we all have level heads. The ego thing? We leave it behind when we walk into rehearsal. We're all on the same level ground. We want it to be real."

The reality is brought home in the furiously delivered verses of "Safety Dies" -- "You've got your job/You've got your money/You've got your fine fine/Woman, don't you? Yeah/You've got your house/You've got your business/You've got it all." Sure you do.

The pressure remains, the balancing of home life and career opportunities against the commitment required to make a rock band survive, to achieve. There's little sense in creating art in a vacuum, and this Friday's concert at the Edge is a showcase for a California-based label. The band is also currently putting together a full CD.

"Our stuff is self-produced, we do our own managing, booking, promotion, with no outside help," says Chip Allen. "We're looking to go in the studio again. Our goal right now is to express ourselves through our music. But we're on a tight budget, so another goal is to get in and do something on someone else's dime." That notion goes even further -- no matter what else they might claim, bands make music to be heard by as many listeners as possible. "Getting a deal helps us facilitate our music," Petkevich says. "We have to put up a lot of money for a CD. That's what record companies do, so why not let them do it? It's not like we're living for a record deal. We live to be ourselves."

If they came to the fork, and had to choose one love above another, Allen and Petkevich agree that the siren call of musical popularity would be difficult to shun. "Everything would have to be weighed out at the time," says Petkevich. "Everone wants to aspire to their dreams and make a living doing what they love. If you never try, you've already failed." Allen chimes in with this view: "A label deal? Financially I would love to be comfortable doing what we love best. But not to make tons of money. My goal in life is not to be in corporate America. I'm in it now because I have responsibilities, I want to have a future. Jorge went back to school to get his MBA because he wants to raise a family. But to do one thing in the world, it would be to create music."

Respeto is a local-scene veteran who also played with the Spinouts, so he's looked at clouds from both sides. "We're definitely not star struck," he affirms. "I've been in bands that came close to getting signed, been joined on stage by Joey Ramone. I played bass with the Spinouts, with a pompadour, painted eyes. I go back to the days of Johnny Depp and Slyder and the U.S. Furies, Charlie Pickett and those guys, and I've seen plenty. There've been a lot of times that things have come close. But I never put my chips on it. I learned to be patient, keep plugging. It's a matter of rock and rolling, even when you're in your Fifties." He pauses and smiles. "Which is not that far away anyway. It's something you're born with. Like Chip said, it's in the blood. I'm an entertainer. I've just always seen myself performing on-stage."

Big Love's stage show carries the same sort of duality that makes this band so fascinating. Exuberant antics can be seen as an impurity in an otherwise honest approach, or they can simply be a contribution to the entertainment package. "It's high energy," Allen says. "Danny's all over the place. Jorge jumps down off the stage and sits on laps ." But none of that is contrived, and that's important. "I feel like I have to touch somebody in the audience," Respeto explains. "I don't feel like some god on-stage. But people are there looking for something, looking for a touch maybe, and by doing that, we just share. We get to let them know that we're just like them, except we have axes. But we're all the same as people. Besides, Danny's a ham, I love to be on-stage, the more the better."

Their recorded music is much more controlled, vaguely pop in a U2 sort of way, which means little. They aren't that much like Bono's band, and they don't seek to be. Theirs is a big sound, an arena sound, simple and straightforward, but fresh enough to stand apart from comparisons. How many bands (successfully) reference a line from "Amazing Grace" in the middle of a song, in this case "Fire," that's at once a gospel ode to the Lord and a wide open field for other interpretations? One -- Big Love.

"I basically write my songs," Respeto says, "about something deeper, something with more value than what job you have, your look, your intelligence, who you hang out with. The value of the individual goes much deeper. I was raised up in a family of ten, never had much in my family, and that led to a lot of soul searching. My dad and mom always worked. I always had to say something, had to be heard. At points I was so scrambled I could hardly communicate with anyone. I guess it's pretty miraculous that now I'm on the dean's list at UM, that I'm even at UM period. I never saw myself accomplishing that. The spirit realm has always been mysterious."

The optimistic and encouraging nature of Big Love's music should not be mistaken for naivete. "Our songs are written to encourage and give hope," Allen says. "There are enough negative messages being given out today, so I think it's important that bands that have something positive to say are heard." And even if one doesn't need a boost up, the sound of Love is compelling enough for other reasons.

"But I still feel that it's a message," Respeto says. "I want to say something. We want to be people who have an opinion no matter what the masses say about it. We live in an era when you need to be heard, need to say things that have substance, something that will have ramifications, make somebody think and maybe even question. Essentially what's happening in school is that your mind is being expanded, you're being told to think. I'm hoping our music can cause that same reaction. That someone will think about what's being said through the songs."

Big Love performs at 11:30 p.m. Friday at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 525-9333. Free before 10:00 p.m., $5 after.

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Greg Baker