Forever and Now

A quick survey of the aftermath of a Little Grizzly show. Singer/ guitarist George Neal is hunched at center stage, face red, veins still throbbing in his forehead from screaming. His knuckles are white from beating his chest in time to the bass drum. Bassist Jacob Barnhart is lying on the stage, chest heaving. Sweat has pasted his shirt to his back and his hair to his face. His guitarist brother Matt, also flushed and sweaty, is searching for his glasses (or what remains of them). Drummer Colin Carter sits behind the kit, breathing hard and chugging beer even harder. And, finally, keyboard/steel guitar/melodica player Howard Draper--the sedate one--sits shell-shocked on his stool until he wanders off to look for the tambourine he threw in a rare burst of passion.

It's not the usual scene for musicians who call what they do "folk music"--climb off stool, put acoustic guitar in case. There's instrument damage, bodily damage. Blood, sweat and beers.

"I'm at the point," Neal says, "where if I'm not crying at the end of the show, I wonder what went wrong."

But the songs are folk--if battered and bruised by drums and guitar--with their narratives of brutal rapes, revengeful deaths, abused children, dying dogs, abandoned elderly parents and other sad creatures who must make life-altering decisions or revisit their chosen paths as they approach the end of the road.

"They are folk songs," Neal says. "They're just really, really fucking loud folk songs. Folk music, country music doesn't have to be quiet."

Little Grizzly is a band that's never quite been understood. They play folk songs with a punk attitude accentuated by keyboards. Too often they've been labeled "alt country." But the thrift-store, pearl-snap western shirt doesn't fit. They're too punk for that. And they're too country for punk. But just when it seemed that Little Grizzly had found its place after eight years, three albums (1999's Please Let Me Go, It Wasn't Meant to Be, 2001's I'd Be Lying If I Said I Wasn't Scared and 2003's Forever and Now EP, all from Matt Barnhart's Quality Park Records), a few short tours and some convert-making local shows, the honeymoon was over, and the irreconcilable differences took over. The divorce will be finalized May 1 when the Denton quintet plays its final show, which also serves as a CD release party for a third--and final--album, When It Comes an End I Will Stand Alone.

"To paraphrase Woody Allen," Matt Barnhart says, "a band is like a shark. It has to keep moving or else it dies. What we have on our hands here is a dead shark. The band has reached an impasse. We're at the point where we either need to pursue the band further--like trying to sell more records, try to make better records, play a lot more and go on tour. Or we need to call it quits." The decision to euthanize Little Grizzly was made over the winter after many state-of-the-union discussions. Matt Barnhart and Draper were pushing for more tours, pursuing other labels and other time-consuming activities. Neal, Carter and Jacob Barnhart, all students at the University of North Texas, had other priorities such as finals, families and full-time jobs. "In the band," Matt Barnhart says, "there are two fundamentally opposed viewpoints of what being a band means and the way you operate a band and how you go about things. There's Howard and me on one side and George and Colin on the other side. And they're not totally incompatible, but we're at this impasse, and that's where the two points diverge." The decision to end the band was made, but a final show had to be delayed until Draper--on tour with the bands Okkervil River and Shearwater for most of the spring--would be home for a weekend.

Little Grizzly could have stayed together, gathering out of habit every few months to play a show, dragging out the fan favorites, but never finding the time to add anything new to the sets. But that stagnancy was already a factor in the breakup. "It's like you're in a relationship with someone," Matt Barnhart says. "And it's not bad. You're never thinking, 'This sucks. Why am I in this relationship?' It's just comfortable. And after a while you realize that it's not taking you forward anymore. You're not learning new things. You're not constantly inspired." Also, Neal says, they didn't want to be the band that's still playing the same songs in the same clubs to the same people in five or 10 years. "That's even more depressing," he says. So they decided to finish their final album and book a farewell show.

The basic tracks for When It Comes an End I Will Stand Alone were recorded a year ago, with the band working off and on whenever there was a free session at the Echo Lab, the studio Matt Barnhart owns with Centro-matic's Matt Pence and The Polyphonic Spree's Dave Willingham. But the album wasn't completed until a few weeks ago. "It's not the final record that I imagined," Matt Barnhart says. "It's not as well thought-out as I wanted it to be. But as our final document I think it's fine." Both Matt Barnhart and Neal say it's the best songwriting the band has done. It's loud and slow and heavy and dark with a few bright moments, such as "Elaine," a crowd favorite that Neal complements with high kicks when playing live, and the set-ending "Forever and Now," a four-minute epic with Rhodes piano.

Seattle's Woodson Lateral Records will release the album June 22, but copies will be for sale at the May 1 show at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios where Little Grizzly will play most of their songs, plus some covers, with the help of friends and previous album contributors Centro-matic's Will Johnson and Scott Danbom, Slobberbone's Brent Best and Chris Flemmons of The Baptist Generals, who open the show along with Monkeytown and The Nizzardz. "Everyone's going to be ready for us to break up after we've been playing for hours and hours," Neal says. "We're not going to play every song we've ever written, but it's going to be pretty damn close."

They're comparing this final performance to an Irish wake, expecting drunken carousing, teary-eyed sing-alongs and maudlin sentiments. "I kind of wanted to break up the band right then and there and not play anymore," Matt Barnhart says. "Honestly I didn't know if I could handle it. I'll probably have a breakdown in the middle of the set because I'm a big baby."

Despite the differences of opinion that contributed to the breakup, none of them really wants to see the band end. It's just a consequence of their changing lives. "I'm really proud of this band," Neal says. "This is a band I would love to go see. For the first time in my life, I made music that I was actually a fan of." Matt Barnhart agrees: "I think we had a really good run. I'm really proud of everything we did. I think the people that like our band genuinely like our band. And we sold an appropriate amount of records and got them into the hands of people who really cared about them. And I can't be sad about that."

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Shannon Sutlief