It's showtime, and the crowd is restless. Already on their feet, the fans wait impatiently for the band to begin, shifting and murmuring in the tightly packed aisles.

The keyboard player belatedly steps to the microphone, squinting through the glare of the stage lights. "Are you ready to move?" he yells, more a command than a question.

Their arms thrust skyward as they reply in one united, high-pitched, frenetic plea: "Aayyyhhhheeeeeee!"

The musicians plunge into the first chords. Within seconds, the band is rolling like a freight train, pumping out a throbbing beat--driven by a bass drum so powerful it reverberates in the chest.

Yet it soon becomes clear that this song is much more than an exercise in raw volume. Beneath the powerful rhythm there is a delicate melody, requiring intricate organ, bass and guitar interplay. Each band member seems to know exactly when to play, and how much--like impressionist painters working on a giant collective canvas, using a dab here and a stroke there, filling all the space with dazzling color but never letting any one shade overwhelm the whole.

It's a little bit blues, with a dash of jazz and a whole lot of rock n' roll. If you can't dance to this, you just can't dance.

And dance the audience does, twisting and undulating in the aisles, happily singing along with the singers onstage.

More often than not, the voice the crowd hears blaring out of the amplifiers belongs to Nancy Jackson, a woman who owns a robust set of pipes that pierce the din with clarity.

Valley music lovers wouldn't be surprised to see Jackson in such a milieu. For almost 12 years, she ran Chuy's nightclub, arguably the most popular music hot spot in Arizona history.

Chuy's, located in Tempe's Hayden Square, drew crowds from around the state to hear the kind of eclectic live performances seldom heard this side of storied music towns like Chicago or New Orleans.

Under the no-nonsense leadership of Jackson, Chuy's was packed and profitable, featuring stellar talent like the late Jaco Pastorius, Robert Cray (long before he became the darling of nouveau blues lovers) and John Lee Hooker. Such artists gave intimate performances at Chuy's--which was specially designed to showcase music--for appreciative and utterly intoxicated audiences. The club set the Valley's musical bench mark.

Accomplished players themselves, Jackson and her husband, bass player Jim Simmons, spent many an evening jamming onstage with some of the most talented musicians in Phoenix and the world.

That's why, as Jackson closes her eyes and belts out a high note, it is easy to imagine this is just another night at Chuy's.

But it isn't.
Jackson and Simmons still play with some of the best. Now, however, they do it for God.

The two former club owners are part of something called the Praise and Worship Team--an all-star band backed by a 60-plus-member choir--whose mission is to whip nearly 2,000 parishioner "fans" into a religious frenzy, so that they can better connect with the spirit of God.

Instead of the standard Chuy's fare--down-and-dirty ditties about fast cars, faster women, broken hearts and demands for one bourbon, one shot and one beer--this group sings love songs to the Lord, urging the audience to pray for a shower of His power and a dose of the Holy Ghost.

Using some of the same drive and acumen that helped make her nightclub a success, Jackson has helped assemble a group of virtuoso musicians for a holy-rolling charismatic church--Scottsdale's Eagle's Nest Christian Embassy--that is rapidly earning the same reputation for innovative musical excellence once held by talent on the dimly lighted Chuy's bandstand. It's becoming common knowledge, among atheist and believer alike, that some of the best music in Arizona is at Eagle's Nest.

It's becoming common knowledge nationally, too. The Eagle's Nest Praise and Worship Team recently taped a 13-part series of performances--complete with such rock-video trappings as smoke machines and strobe lights--set to air on a national religious cable channel next month.

So how exactly did the czarina of Valley nightclubdom--a prototypical impresaria, fond of guitars, glittery dresses showing lots of cleavage, and strong cocktails--become a high priestess of Christian pop-rock?

It started back in March 1992, when the company that owned and operated Hayden Square, which leased space to Chuy's, went bankrupt. The development went back to the bank--in this case, the loan-holding Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

Unfortunately for Jackson, Met Life didn't turn out to be anything like Snoopy, the cuddly beagle that is the corporation's trademark. Instead, the company behaved like a pit bull, sinking its teeth deep into Chuy's leg and draining the then-thriving business of its lifeblood.

Depending on who's talking, there are a number of possible explanations for why Met and its minions systematically destroyed Arizona's No. 1 nightclub--greed, corporate sloth or simple incompetence among them.

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Darrin Hostetler