'I liked U2's music before I heard about their faith," says Isaac Slade. "Certainly doesn't hurt, though."
While it may not be entirely obvious from his band's hits, Slade has his own personal and professional stakes in the matter. As frontman for the Fray, Denver's millions-selling pop group, he's among the few musicians who can expound on faith — Christian or otherwise — and still manage to break through to the mainstream. Hits like "How to Save a Life" and "You Found Me," driven by Slade's piano and emotion-laden singing, certainly didn't hurt.
Like other members of the Fray, Slay was raised in a steadfastly religious household and played in his church worship band. In the course of pursuing their own original music, though, the Fray broke free of what they perceived as a self-defeating insularity inherent in so-termed Christian music. Their move highlighted a longstanding schism in the religious-music industry, and recalled that of African-American gospel acts who ventured to record secular hit songs at the dawn of the pop era.
Of course, that's not the only U2 connection: The Fray will be entertaining the biggest band in the world at the biggest house in town — Invesco Field at Mile High — after which they'll tag along as U2's opening act in Salt Lake City, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Edmonton, Alberta.
This will be the Fray's first time on stage at Invesco, despite having gone double platinum with its debut album, How to Save a Life, back in 2005. The band's self-titled second album then debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Add a bunch of Grammy nominations, and the stadium date has been a long time in the works.
But Slade and the Fray have played big shows before. This is nothing special, right?
"Hometown's a whole different thing, man," says Slade. "That stadium has been staring me down every time I drive past it on I-25. 'You think you can take me? You?'
"But I do feel ready. Like I've played almost every venue in town all for this. Bit dramatic, but hey. There it is."
Of course, playing the arena is only half the battle. The Fray also has to face the massive and rabid audience of the biggest band in the world. So what are the rules when opening for a band like U2 — not the written ones about brown M&Ms and cucumber water, but the unwritten ones?
"No headliner covers, almost ever," reports Slade. And, he jokes — or at least seems to joke — "you can't wear sunglasses and run around like Bono."
Soul at the crossroads
The Fray's mainstream success hasn't kept Slade from exploring his religious side more directly and publicly than the band might as a whole. Slade recently recorded a cover of the old-time gospel favorite "O Love That Will Not Let Me Go" for a projected multi-artist inter-faith album. His producer was Charlie Peacock, who has worked with Christian pop trailblazer Amy Grant, South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and outward-bound jazz guitarist Marc Ribot.
Like U2, Peacock has provided guidance to Slade about how to navigate the intersection of faith and the Billboard charts. Peacock, however, is a hero of Slade's as much for his writing as for his music. Peacock's 1999 non-fiction book, At the Crossroads, explored the fissures in what was then called contemporary Christian music, and served as a major influence on a youthful Slade's thinking about how to make music beyond the confines of the church.
The U2 tour dates come right in the midst of a different kind of confinement. The Fray have been holed up working through a demanding recording schedule. The project is being helmed by producer Brendan O'Brien, whose substantial résumé includes much harder rock acts like AC/DC, Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against the Machine, as well as Bruce Springsteen and Trey Anastasio from the jam band Phish. The group has been using its blog, thefray.net, to post a steady stream of studio photos (guitar pedals, mixing boards, notebooks, that kind of thing) and video shorts, but little in the way of hard news.
Slade says that details have been slow in the coming because the album remains very much a work-in-progress. Even the release date is unclear. "Don't know when the record is coming out yet," he reports, "but we're shooting for sometime in the fall."
Any hints at what it will sound like? "I think I've always had a hard time talking about music," he says, "but I will say it's a little more heart than head. That's good, right?"