Five people were scattered inside Club Clearview, maybe 10. A dozen tops. Whatever the number, it wasn't enough people to qualify as an audience and certainly not a crowd. Walking inside, it seemed as though the group onstage had served every person inside Clearview with a restraining order, forcing them to remain at least 20 feet from the stage at all times. The band wasn't even supposed to be here, filling in after a last-minute cancellation by another group, so the only people who came to Clearview expecting Little Grizzly to play were the members of the band. Oh well.
Not that it would have mattered much that night, with the Dallas Mavericks in the process of squeaking by the favored Utah Jazz at the last second to advance in the NBA playoffs and the Dallas Stars on the ice and on the tube in their own NHL playoff game. The Toadies could have been on the bill and attendance still would have been sparse.
The four members of Little Grizzly didn't care who was or wasn't there. If you were standing against the stage, oblivious to everything except the writhing bodies in front of you wrestling songs out of their instruments, you would have thought there were 1,000 screaming fans pressed up against you, aching for more. The band looked as though playing a 45-minute set had replaced one of the legs of a triathlon, their shirts wetter than if they'd been pulled from the washing machine mid-spin cycle. Drummer Colin Carter beat his drums like they stole something from him, while guitarist Matt Barnhart appeared to be suffering appendicitis, doubled over his guitar, coaxing noise out of every chord. Barnhart's brother Jacob played hopscotch with his bass in the middle of the stage, Pete Townshend in thrift-store threads, and singer-guitarist George Neal screamed lullabies with eyes practically stitched together. It was loud and beautiful and everything else rock and roll is all about on its better days, songs that slugged you in the jaw then picked you up off the floor, dusted you off and draped an arm around your shoulder. And almost no one saw it.
It wasn't the first time Little Grizzly had been in a situation where the audience didn't care or simply wasn't there. It is a band that has played in front of 14 fans who hang on every word and 1,400 disinterested onlookers who only hung their middle fingers in the air (see: Little Grizzly opening for the Toadies at the Ridglea Theater last year). They make music because they love it, not because they want people to love them. It's a simple fact most bands have forgotten.
"We understand that we're a band that not a lot of people are going to like," Matt Barnhart says. "That's not a comment on anybody's taste or our own band's ability or the way we sound. I think we have a natural audience out there."
"They're all still at home with their moms right now," Neal adds. "Not going out much."
"It's like a pocket of 10 or 15 guys in a lot of different towns who are just like us, who are obsessive music nerds, but aren't scenester-type people or anything," Barnhart continues. "They're dorks that love watching Star Trek and listening to folk music. We just kind of understand."
Which is part of what makes Little Grizzly great: They do this for themselves. No one else factors into the equation. That's not to say they don't want people to listen to them or that they make music people wouldn't want to listen to. Sitting around a picnic table on the roof of the Dallas Observer office, Barnhart and Neal wonder who wants to listen to Little Grizzly's "old man music" besides those obsessive music nerds. It's music they (correctly) describe as "The Band meets Hüsker Dü," sped-up folk tunes smashing into a wall of sound or punk songs played on a backwoods back porch, depending on their mood and what's next on the set list.
The just-released I'd Be Lying If I Said I Wasn't Scared, issued on Barnhart's own Quality Park Records, plays both sides of the fence. Neal's sepia-toned lyrics (sample: "Every soul's afeard," the opening line from "I Thought I Knew Ya Better Than That") come down the mountain hand in hand with a guitar sound rescued from SST Records' late-'80s roster ("Today is the Day," "She's Away"). They're songs that know their history yet seem determined to repeat and revise it. I'd Be Lying is thoroughly American music, incorporating everything from gentle acoustic ballads to amplifier-tipping guitar heroics, sometimes on the same song ("Peel Back the Sun"). A record made by record collectors for record collectors.
Last year at this time, they weren't sure what they wanted to do, whether they wanted to be The Band or Hüsker Dü or something else entirely. All they knew is they were ready to explore all possibilities. That turned out to be a problem. Then, Little Grizzly was just starting to record its second album, following up 1999's Please Let Me Go, It Wasn't Meant to Be. It was a process that eventually lasted more than a year, or as Neal estimates, "Too friggin' long." As the sessions for the album dragged on and on, Neal kept writing songs, and the band continued recording them, dropping other songs to make room, recording others as many as four times, until everything made sense. Two songs were recorded two weeks before Barnhart was set to mix the disc and written not long before then. The disc they ended up with was, not surprisingly, drastically different from the record they set out to make.