Shiny, happy guys

It's a Thursday night at Grinder's and of course it's humid out on the java joint's patio, where a pair of young fellas perform music in the back. One does most of the singing; the other strums an acoustic guitar and sings backup. Some of their admitted inspirations are obvious, others not so: Jim Croce, James Taylor, Elvis Costello. They chatter happily with each other between songs, and many of their folksy, self-written ditties feel so damned upbeat that even the ones about a lonesome cowboy and the real-life kidnapping of a little girl aren't entirely bummers.

"We don't take ourselves all that seriously. [Our music] is not angst-ridden," Dean Lindsay says. He's the singer, the one whose vocals bring to mind a young Kenny Loggins, before he got serious and abandoned Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, and the rest and started singing about the environment. "It's music that really should cleanse the soul, not bring it down. We touch on serious topics, but we do it in a light-hearted way. We definitely try not to be preachy."

The enthusiasm of Lindsay and partner-pal Mark Gowan (the one who strums) is all the more surprising when you consider the audience: There isn't any. With the exception of two teenage girls sitting up front, nobody else on the patio pays much attention to their performance. Patrons are too busy smoking, slacking, and chatting. The noise these two guys make may as well be Muzak dripping out of a public-address system.

At least that's how things appear. Lindsay tells of a young woman, a typical Grinder's regular, who once sat way in the back. Throughout the show, she didn't appear to be listening at all, but she eventually approached the musicians and asked if they would play a song of theirs, one of her personal favorites; she requested it by title, flooring the pair. Since then, they consider anyone within earshot a listener and possibly a fan, regardless of appearances. Yet, while listening to them you get the impression that the two men simply get off enough on the very idea of performing their music in public. You'd be right.

How refreshingly different from the local music talents who grow frustrated and cynical due to a lack of audience enthusiasm, or the moments when an artist feels compelled to say something at the end of a show like "Fuck you all very much! Good night!" angry at the people too busy boozing or playing pool to listen.

Lindsay and Gowan are aware of the apparent indifference they face, and they acknowledge it good-naturedly through their onstage idle banter.

"Some nights, I'm probably the bigger ham," Gowan says. "Other nights, it's Dean; it switches. I think in the long run, Dean is the bigger ham," he concedes.

Kidding about where they're playing comes with the territory. After all, they mostly play venues where the last thing on people's minds is the music--like Grinder's (where they've become a Thursday night staple) or barbecue restaurants or a Denton laundromat (where they compete against the spin cycles). "We want to hit people that don't normally come out to music venues. [If] they're going out to eat, then that's where we're going to play," Lindsay says. By doing so, they've steadily built an audience base that could lead to shows at more music-oriented venues like Poor David's Pub and Club Dada. "Plus, we get great food," Lindsay adds matter-of-factly. "Free barbecued ribs are always cool."

Ever since the two first met nine years ago in Denton, as students at the University of North Texas, each has come to regard the other as a "kindred spirit." Both married Scandinavian women (the inevitable result of Gowan spending six years in Denmark; Lindsay spent two weeks in Sweden). Each had done separate stints in Up With People, an apolitical and nonreligious international song-and-dance troupe of cheery young folk age 18 to 25, known for touring the world with a universal message of good will and understanding and creeping the hell out of cynics. UWP also was very likely the inadvertent training ground for the duo's upbeat songwriting and performance.

Surprisingly, their best songs are--in contrast to their manic stage presence--the more mellow ones. "Lover Take Care of My Heart" exemplifies what the pair excels at: ballads that appropriately alternate between the soothing lulls of Lindsay's voice and the crests of Gowan's guitar.

Gowan is not a timid guitarist, either: no cheesy gentle strumming for him; he rips into his instrument on a song like "Angela" with the strong attack of much harder music, and it plays against the inherent mellowness of the two-guys-in-a-coffee-shop format well.

The songs that come up short, though, are the ones that try to deal with serious topics. Take "Babblin' Man," which was inspired by politicians' nonsense talk. The song is there, but not the substance, and there's no sense that the subject is a personal one; Lindsay is merely a messenger, and the overall effect is akin to listening to the evening news--complete with editorial comment--in verse.

In Denton, Lindsay, now 28, and Gowan, now 31, were regular fixtures in the college town's varied music scene, and their efforts paid off in 1990 when they played the Kerrville Folk Festival. They stopped performing not long after that, though, and each pursued other opportunities. Lindsay's acting aspirations picked up when he was cast as a guest star in the CBS series Walker, Texas Ranger and in a small role in this summer's Michael Crichton blockbuster, Twister. That's Lindsay's voice you hear on the citizens band radio imploring Cary Elwes to watch out for the "big-ass F6 twister" just before it sucks up Elwes and finishes him for good.

Gowan, meanwhile, realized a "boyhood dream" he'd had since he was age 10: becoming a truck driver, piloting an 18-wheeler across the country. That yearlong experience gave him "more people to write songs about--different kinds, [from] different areas of the country. You see a lot of things, driving one of those," he reflects.

Personal schedules recently fell into sync once again, and the kindred pair resumed performing, picking up regular, frequent gigs. They also stopped playing covers--not an easy decision, as patrons often request and expect them from musicians performing in restaurants. "When we first started, we used to do a lot of covers,"Lindsay says. "When we got back together we both decided the reason that we even wanted to play music was to be able to sing our own songs."

Gigging for the past four months has already led to the self-production of a 13-track CD of their original songs, set for local distribution by the end of September. Plans also are in the works for a regional tour next year to spread their soul-satisfying tunes to other parts.

What if audiences outside the Dallas area prove unattainable, whether listening or not? To hear Lindsay and Gowan tell it, it wouldn't be that big a deal. "I don't think a bigger crowd is important," Lindsay concludes. "[Performing] is very therapeutic for me and I know for Mark also. What I look forward to the most is getting up there and having a good time with Mark...and performing these songs I believe in. If Mark and I can continue having fun, I think we're just going to keep doing it.


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