Where: Canvas Lounge, 1707 Church St.
When: Sunday, Nov. 11, 8:12 p.m.
It's a little after 8 o'clock on Sunday. We rush in the front door, hoping we haven't missed the beginning. We had a hard time finding a parking spot, and we're surely going to have to sit either in the very front or the very back, which means either parading our tardiness in front of the entire congregation or regaling our delinquent selves to the nosebleed seats. My palms are sweating as childhood fears of being on the receiving end of a disapproving look from the pastor resurface. Nobody likes to be late for church.
OK, fine, this isn't exactly church. We're on Church, but to call this "church" would probably get me stoned ... and not in a good way.
We're here to see the Dickson Chix, a trio of "ladies" who perform a monthly Camp Meeting/Sunday Night Revival of Spirits at Canvas Lounge. The Dickson Chix — Marlene, Darlene and Carlene — claim to live in a Dickson trailer and admit right off the bat they have the same mom but three different dads. Existing at the unlikely intersection of gospel revival and improv comedy, the Chix are three gentlemen who never fall out of character, and whose identities offstage remain a mystery.
The pews and seats are all taken. What's left is a couple of giant beanbags, so Photographer Michael and I plop down. My view is partially obstructed by a giant speaker, but I figure I will be able to follow along. (Wrong. I will spend the entire night mixing up Carlene and Marlene.)
A red rope light running across the floor designates the stage. Chairs and benches have been pushed to one side of the room, creating a seating area for the "congregation." Bright lights illuminate the dark corner of the bar. As soon as Pastor Peter the Peter Eater welcomes the crowd, I know we're in for one holy roller-coaster ride.
The Chix take the stage. They're dressed up like your crazy grandmother — you know, the one who wears lipstick way past the outer lines of her lips and puts her girdle on backwards. Darlene's legs, extending from her bright blue skirt, shimmer like a beach bunny's. I later ask her the secret to her sleek look. I do not expect the reply to be Pam cooking spray.
They launch into their first number, singing in gorgeous three-part harmony. The Chix are accompanied by keys, a percussionist called Pussyfoot — an actual woman! — and a violinist named Vaseline. (He's slick.) I can't make out all the lyrics, but the chorus most definitely expresses a love for "Jesus and vodka and Vicodin."
Consider me a convert.
Pussyfoot leaps from behind her drum to indulge in a little tap dancing. Her pink Dollywood tank top and ruffled skirt — something you'd see on a matronly teenager at the state fair — is nicely complemented by granny glasses, Dickson Chix-approved clown-mouth lipstick and a wig that resembles FFH hair. (If you don't know, just Google it.)
The crowd is drinking heavily. Every once and a while, someone contributes a "Hallelujah!" or an "Amen!" Hands are waving in the air like it's Six Flags Over Jesus. Like all good preachers, the Chix know the value of a topical reference.
"The Carnival Kia man has been arrested," notes Darlene (Marlene?). "His Ferris wheel is going down."
"This may teach him not to wear pleated pants and Western belts on television," retorts Carlene (Marlene?).
"I would beat my wife if she bought me that, Marlene — I mean, Carlene! I can't remember my own sister's name," says Darlene. (Well, at least I'm not the only one.)
The Chix treat the crowd to classics such as "I'll Fly Away" and "This Little Light Of Mine." There is plenty of ad-libbing and creative lyric interpretation, but the music is actually pretty good. The Chix are bona fide singers, and if I close my eyes and ignore the foul banter, I could almost be at church in the Deep South.
When I open my eyes, I realize that it's a lot like church, if you replaced the candles with a smoke machine, the altar with a keyboard, the stained-glass windows with a disco ball, the communion wine with cocktails, and the choir with three heavily made-up men.
Speaking of smoke machines, a hefty fog suddenly smothers the crowd.
"What? Is hell coming down?" one of the sisters yells. "That's the wrath of the Republicans!"
At this point, various onstage conversations inspire a list of things that you will never hear in actual church. (If you're easily offended ... well, now is probably the time to turn the page.)
"Tonight we're having a charity drive for Mitt Romney. He needs some extra white underwear."
"Don't let her kid you, her pubic hair is falling out. She keeps trying to dye it, and it won't take."
"She is workin' her merkin."
"I never got my fucking screwdriver! I prayed and prayed and prayed."
"Thank God for transvaginal mesh. But if you can't afford that, you just need some dense screen."
"Here's a feminine napkin for you, girl. It's got wings. I believe I can fly!"
"If you didn't lose your virginity, come stand in the front and we'll find someone for you."
"When you have an upbringing like this, there are consequences." (On second thought, you may hear that in actual church.)
Let it be known that if you're sitting in the front row, you are essentially inviting the Dickson Chix to pick on you.
"Right over here in the first row, there's someone suffering," exclaims Darlene. "He's suffering from anal warts! Come up here, we're gonna lay hands on you."
Hmmm, another thing you probably won't hear in church. That, and what they said when they motioned to our side of the room, commenting on how there were some breeders and "taint painters" over here. I Google "taint painter" on my iPhone and immediately regret it.
I put my phone down and realize that I'm missing a group Jell-O shot onstage. Wait, that's communion.
"These do not work as a diaphragm," explains Darlene, motioning to her empty Jell-O shot. "But give these out at Thanksgiving, and your family will get along."
Despite the generally irreverent tone of the show, the Chix strike a serious tone a few times during the evening. They dedicate a song to a "member of the congregation who has lost someone near and dear," and they thank all veterans for their service, solemnly stating, "Thank you for all that you do that makes it possible for us to do this."
Afterwards, I chat with the ladies, who, in addition to being very generous with the paper towels stuffed in their bras — so that's why they're so perky! toilet paper is for amateurs! — take their mission more seriously than they lead you to believe. They stress that they're not making fun of God: they're poking fun at organized religion and the stricture that surrounds it.
Each of the Dickson Chix grew up in the church, and they're trying to reach people who may have a hard time reconciling with their religion, or with themselves. They're speaking to those who have been ostracized from the church, which is something they probably know a thing or two about.
The Chix close their show with a reprise of their ode to Jesus, vodka and Vicodin, and they invite everyone — yes, everyone — out to their "Gaytivity," which will take place at Canvas on Dec. 16. As come-to-Jesus meetings go, this one sounds pretty chill. As Darlene (Marlene? Carlene?) puts it, "Jesus loves you! And we'd sure love the chance to!"