By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It's almost as though a brand-new band has sprung straight from the ashes of the Orbit Room. On June 23, the last night of its existence, the rock club's sooty, Kozik-covered walls shook with 4/4 throttle; but as the punk-rock haven was shutting its doors, a remarkable three-piece took the stage for the very first time. Pleasant Grove, so named for the east-of-Dallas suburb, was the first act of four to go on that evening, on a bill headlined by the visiting Dirty Three. And the celebrating, grieving Orbit regulars who turned up in droves with their own six-packs and whiskey flasks and tequila-filled Igloos--the bar's liquor license had been yanked a week before the club closed--stopped their bitching and guzzling and laughing when they heard a seductive double-guitar intro, then a water-tight harmony, waft down from the stage. Measured, relaxed, and most of all, surprisingly ripe with both melody and restraint, Pleasant Grove's set was the best new thing to happen in Dallas music in, well, a hell of a long time.
And they haven't played a live show since. But between them, Pleasant Grove's three members have played a thousand, give or take a thousand more, sets in this town: David Mabry was once the drummer for End Over End, among the first notable bands to spring from a nascent Deep Ellum more than a decade ago--those of you under 27, consult with your big brother. After that, he had a year-long stint with Reverend Horton Heat. Marcos Striplin, still a kid at 22 (which made him only nine when David was finding public momentum), fronted an underrated band called Static for four years after graduating from Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts. And Bret Egner, the good-natured sound guy at Orbit for the last year and a half, has played in a two-piece outfit called lo-dro with David for more than three years, as well as lending a hand to other scattered projects.
This is a new band, but these men are far from rookies, which makes their attitude all the more surprising: They're as passionate, as earnest about this project--about rock and roll--as any teenager who's just received his first Fender on Christmas morning. None of that cynicism, that abject calculation, or go-for-the-gold incentive has invaded their attitudes or their song writing (not yet, anyway), which is completely refreshing. Especially for three musicians who've been around and seen the worst this city has to offer.
"This is a dead-serious endeavor," Mabry says. "The first practice, I swear to God, I had goose bumps." Sitting at an outside table at a McKinney Avenue restaurant on a blessedly cool evening last week, he's been mostly joking around up to this point--until asked point-blank about his intentions for Pleasant Grove. "I even have that first practice on video." He pauses. "I have to play what's real, and this band is so damn real."
"I wanted to play with them," adds Striplin, Grove's co-guitarist and singer. "I always wanted to play with them because of lo-dro, and knew if we could all put our brains together, some good stuff would come out of it. And this music is all about the soul." He laughs self-consciously at his last statement. "Really, any music that can bring me that much closer to crying..."
So many bands are crushed beneath the weight--the near-cliche--of such self-imposed expectations. Pleasant Grove, formed only five months ago, is more than rescued by its strategy: Take it slow, keep each other laughing, and above all, write material they love to play, regardless of audience reaction. "I would be happy to sell only three albums, just as long as we can play what we want," Mabry insists. "Then, of course, I'd want to meet those three people."
The other key to their rescue from guileless idealism is the musical product: a mesmerizing set of songs--gut-wrenching, sophisticated, pared down to the barest arrangement while echoing dense layers of sound and meaning. Striplin and Egner share guitar and vocal duties, and the band lacks a bass player, something the members have mixed feelings about. While the three-piece never threatens to float away unanchored, the lack of heaviest low tones keeps things--especially their live set--somewhat ethereal. It's different, and in a good way, but the band feels the hole.
"I compensate on my end," Egner says, referring to his gravitational guitar style. "I play lower whenever it's warranted. I'd like to have a bass player, but we've tried several, and they didn't work out. They overplayed; they wanted to prove too much." He laughs. "We need someone who's scared of us, so we can tell 'em what to do." Mabry and Striplin speak of adding a bassist in slightly guarded tones. They'd like more rootedness, but they enjoy the unbroken rapport of the current lineup.
Recorded, their songs pack impressive power even without the extra instrument. Their first untitled demo, a three-song study in three-hour production, comes off like a small, powerful drilling-rig expedition: The heavy bit eats through 10 thick layers of clay. You can get off on the superficial strata (the ear-soothing melodies, the warmly fuzzy guitar) or dig deeper to hit crude black gold (surprisingly limber play between the instruments, atmospheric hypnosis, unapologetically dramatic lyrics).