As far as the members of Jars of Clay are concerned, songs aren't just things that you put together and float out over the audience.
Very often, they come back to the band with added meaning.
"There are certain songs that have accumulated stories over the years and those stories become attached to the songs," said Daniel Haseltine, the band's lead singer and songwriter. "There's the story that was attached to the song when we were writing it, and then there's the better story that happens when somebody tells us what happened with them when they heard the song and how the song wove itself into their story."
He cites as an example "Scarlet," a song Jars of Clay recorded more than 10 years ago and rarely played any more. One night, a woman in the audience requested it. So they played it.
After the show, they met the woman, who had been a prostitute and a drug addict.
"She said the song found her and gave her the motivation to make some different choices for herself," Mr. Haseltine said. "And now we're playing that song almost every night, because now it means so much more than it did before."
Over the course of the past 19 years, Jars of Clay has accumulated a number of honors, three Grammys and multimillion record sales. But the stories of how their fans have touched and been touched by songs -- those are the most rewarding parts of what they do.
That interaction will be in full force Saturday night at The Altar Bar in the Strip District, when Jars of Clay takes the stage with Sleeping At Last and Mariah McManus.
Jars of Clay is made up of Mr. Haseltine, Charlie Lowell on keyboards, and Matt Odmark and Steve Mason on guitars. The group got its start in the music classes of Greenville College, a Christian school in southern Illinois. To this day, the band bears the label of "Christian rock."
It's a label that sometimes chafes.
"When we started playing music, we were naive enough to really believe there weren't any real boundary lines," Mr. Haseltine said. "That you could cross genres without much problem. We just saw it as music.
"We found there certainly is a line. We thought we were playing rock 'n' roll music and we had a Christian world view. Other people said we were playing Christian music. We don't necessarily buy into that as a term. It's a very dismissive kind of a label. We've wrestled with that for a while.
"When you put that label on it, there's a whole group of people who say, 'My experience with the church is very negative and that music isn't for me.' But we're really trying to write from a very universal place. We're not writing as artists with an agenda. That's the misconception.
"There's a lot of Christian music out there that has an agenda attached to it. A strong church agenda; they're trying to get you to convert or believe something. But we've never really done that.
"We know that there are a number of people who won't listen to Jars of Clay music because there's that label, and that's frustrating. That's sad for us, because we write for everybody. And we feel the music is good enough and more people would enjoy it if they could get past that label. We try to confound people who would put that label on us.
"There's a lot of people in the Christian community who might wonder, 'Why would you go and play in a bar?' But for us, this is where people go to hear and enjoy music. And that's what we want.
"We tend to feel that the landscape is shifting and that line is getting blurred. Because Christianity is a religion, a world view. It's not a music genre."
But you shouldn't come away with the impression that Jars of Clay is all loaded-with-meaning and heavy. Mr. Haseltine said they're perfectly happy playing music while the members of the audience slap beers and dance.
"If people are just kicking back and listening to the music, that's great," he said. "We're music fans. I think there's equal value in letting people have a good time and enjoy the music.
"For the ones that want to dig in, hopefully, we're providing them something with substance. But either is valid and important and great.
"The only criteria we have for our music is that we won't lie about the way the world is. We've given ourselves the freedom to write about any topic, as long as we're telling the truth.
"A lot of Christian music represents a positive spin on everything. But I think that that alienates a lot of people because they think 'Well, that's not real life. That's not how I feel it.' It's unrealistically positive.
"We've always pushed against that. Jar's music ... We have hope that things can be better for a person. But we actually want to be honest."
The honesty -- the way life really works -- is that there are problems in life, problems in the world. The members of Jars of Clay have seen them up close, and in 2005 the band founded the nonprofit organization Blood: Water Mission, battling HIV/AIDS and water crises in sub-Saharan Africa.
"It's the life we actually live in. We've experienced a lot of that," Mr. Haseltine said. "We work in Africa with people that are wrestling with HIV and AIDS and poverty. It is a very complex and difficult issue. You realize we're not going to see the end of poverty. We can only be with these people in the midst of their struggle. You may not see change in the foreseeable future."
But that doesn't stop them from working in the right direction.
The Altar Bar is at 1620 Penn Ave., and the show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $22.
Get a preview of tonight's event!
"Work"-Jars of Clay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lL0041GDsqE
If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456.
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/