Chris Gregory isn't uniquely blessed with the iconoclastic golden locks and hedonistic wail of Robert Plant nor the guitar-god gifts of Jimmy Page. He enters Ruta Maya's full-moon Led Zeppelin Hoot as a mere mortal and Austinite, a humble middle-school science teacher who aims to please.
The Golden Bear lead singer's meek appearance is heightened by his tucked-in flannel shirt, grandfatherly glasses, winter scarf, and black beanie perched high atop his head. He seems almost lost or, at the very least, dazed and confused, as the Almost Is tears into Physical Graffiti.
"I was under the impression they'd supply us with instruments," worries Gregory. "We've never done one of these before and didn't really know what to expect. All we brought was a keyboard."
Thankfully, Golden Bear always travels in packs. The back corner of the South Congress coffeehouse resembles the band's family reunion, as brothers, sisters, and wives congregate with, among many others, Colby Pennington and Thom Marshall, who perform with the five members of Golden Bear in its sisterly local collective, the Channel. Finding strength in their numbers and borrowing gear from Tia Carrera and Just Guns, the ursine quintet takes the stage slowly and unsurely.
It isn't until keyboardist Matt Gardiner issues the euphonious opening to "All My Love," backed by Andy McAllister's thunderous beat, that the other half of Gregory emerges the side that waits patiently for this moment. His brown loafers begin to shuffle, his hands start twitching, and his voice trembles as he sings Plant's words, earnestly and sincerely, without any sense of irony or sexual pretense.
Yours is the cloth, mine is the hand that sews time.
His is the force that lies within.
Ours is the fire, all the warmth we can find.
He is a feather in the wind.
All of my love, all of my love, all of my love to you.
Transcendence comes during the breakdown. With a single swoop of his guitar, Gregory finally mounts the stairway, releasing all anxiety and self-consciousness. Now resembling a gawky combination of Pete Townshend, James Brown, and Elvis, he does the robot and a few windmill strums in a matter of seconds; his beanie falls to the floor in the process. He clicks his heels like Dorothy as his face lights up with ecstatic joy.
This is his victory, revenge of the nerds, his second in the sun, which most people spend their entire lives chasing. The warmth and positive energy he exudes illuminates everyone around him, including his faithful bandmates and friends.
"The experience is almost out-of-body for me," Gregory says later. "Afterward it feels like this weird dream that happened, but I'm left totally exhausted and drained. I don't think I've been blessed in terms of ability, but I have been with my perseverance and determination.
"It's using the gifts that you have that matters. At that moment I'm realizing all of my aspirations."
Through the walls of Gregory's rented home in Northeast Austin, the heavenly vocals of Heather McAllister Channel songstress, wife to drummer Andy McAllister, and sister of bassist Brent Pennington echoes the opening refrain to the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind." Though it's only been a matter of months since Golden Bear released their self-titled debut LP, a sonically dense, celebratory collection of whimsical and invigorating indie rock anthems as produced by Erik Wofford ("Texas Platters," September 8, 2006), the band is already writing and recording its follow-up nearly 'round the clock. Gardiner, who's handling the preliminary editing, has his own keys to place at this point. With any luck, To the Farthest Star will be on the shelves in time for SXSW in mid-March.
"I know it's cheesy to say, but we have to strike while the iron's hot," grins Gregory in his dining room, which is bare save for an angel-topped Christmas tree. "We're in a good spot, but we can't sit back and relax. You have to work at it. Trying is so important; at least if you try, then you know you did your best and at least had the courage to put yourself out there. It's been a journey; we've been working hard for a really long time. If we can create that small amount of buzz again at the right time, who knows what can happen?"
The anxiety and nervousness felt by all regarding the new album is not spoken but understood nonetheless. Golden Bear has been rejected by SXSW two years running, and C-Side Records owner Matt Pittman admits his financial concerns for the label's future.
"We're yet to break even on a release," Pittman laments. "I can't afford to put out another Channel record. I wish I had the funds to do it, but I've got two kids, a third on the way, and I'm just not making the money I used to."
Subsequently, Golden Bear is self-producing and recording To the Farthest Star, though that's nothing new for anyone at this point. Each of the Channel's releases, including last year's phenomenal Tales From a Two Hill Heart/Sibylline Machine ("Texas Platters," September 15, 2006), were done on rented 8-track machines and with only one microphone.
Despite the plethora of instruments leaning up against the padded walls and the chaotic time constraints involved, the band's makeshift SparkleSound Studio is surprisingly tidy, like a commercial for the Container Store, cables neatly separated from mixers and pedals. The closet serves as a control room, cramped with monitors and headphones. The entrance is a revolving door, open to all, as friends and family members routinely stop by to help contribute vocal harmonies, additional instrumentation, or, in some cases, just hand-claps.
The band plays back "Tonight's the Night," the final chapter of its intergalactic tale about the eternal battle between good and evil and the necessity of remaining positive. The sound is exultant; a supernatural energy is created by the Royal Forest Horns' sweeping arrangements, the fuzzy guitars, and the group choruses. Gregory barges in at the climax, plucking the to-be-recorded Wurlitzer section.
Tonight, good triumphs, but there's no time for celebration. Tomorrow morning Gregory's eighth graders begin new lessons on rocks and minerals.
C-Side Records isn't Austin's long-awaited answer to the Elephant 6 collective. The ties that bind the members of Golden Bear and the Channel are deeper than the art and music they create together.
The core of the Channel, a creative and communal outlet for five different songwriters, is composed of brothers Brent and Colby Pennington. Their first memories are of their father leading the family on guitar through traditional tunes such as "There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea." Dad sang bass, Mom brought the tenor, and the brothers just joined on in.
"I'm only starting to realize that we're an abnormally close family," Brent says. "Even if we stopped putting out records, the Channel would always be there. We'll never stop playing together."
Brent lists Colby among his favorite all-time songwriters and calls him "the most inherently good and the friendliest, kindest, most loving person" he's ever met. Brent's desire to harmonize with his brother musically is reflective of his daily struggle to establish his own personal harmony after a failed marriage and while raising his 9-year-old son, Ashen. The songs he writes are often dark and dreary, remnants of his emotional heartbreak, but when his voice overlaps with his brother's, it creates something tangible a simple, remarkable beauty like a dancing flame that serves as a foundation for his life.
"His music is just really powerful and meaningful to me," Brent adds. "It's so pure. His songs are written in a way that makes the arrangements just come naturally to me."
Brent also began playing with Andy McAllister and the Sibylline Machine half of Tales From a Two Hill Heart, Jamie Reaves, in a band called the Arthurs, who, along with Colby and their younger sister Heather, then recorded as the Channel and, with the addition of Gregory, as Golden Bear. Matt Pittman, a longtime fan of Brent and Colby's music, formed C-Side Records in 2002 to distribute the bands' music ("Texas Platters," August 11, 2006). "I offer my time and try to help out the best I can," says Pittman. "I've always thought the music deserved to be heard by people outside our little circle."
This circle, which continues to grow as fans become friends and friends become family until no distinction between the two can be made, is grounded in their shared belief in a higher calling. "We all have our own beliefs on certain things," explains Brent, whose father is a preacher in the Church of Christ, "but overall we share faith in God and faith that the best way to live your life is by loving God through loving and helping others."
Many of the band members and their families also meet weekly for Bible study at the home of Matt Pittman's father-in-law. "It's not easy to live your life the way that you think Jesus lived his," he admits. "It seems almost against your internal instincts sometimes. When we get together, we look at the Bible and try to make applications to our lives. We try to support each other, whether mentally, spiritually, or financially. We try to meet each others' needs and take care of one another."
Colby Pennington dusts off an old cassette player in his home office, which is lined with musical instruments, family photographs, and posters of artists like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. "This one's from when I was 2 and Brent was 3," he prefaces a selection.
It begins with their mother introducing the kids as the Pumpkin Singers while baby Heather babbles in the background. The boys rush through Hank Williams' "Kaw-liga" and the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann." Next up, at ages 8 and 9, the two are making beats with a pillow and xylophone and freestyle rapping.
Now 28, Colby is one of the most prolific songwriters living in Austin. In the past five years, he's recorded more than 200 songs and estimates his lifetime total at three times that. On paper, the songs fill two three-ring binders, crammed to bursting, and half of a file cabinet. He claims that when he wakes up, the music is there waiting. His lyric sheets offer proof: scraps of paper, sticky notes, dental reports, day-by-day calendar pages, all covered with scribbled handwriting, as if he's frantically attempting to capture his fleeting muse.
His lo-fi home recordings, occasionally released under the alias Driftin' Luke & His Many Personalities, journey through Don DeLillo's Americana, exploring a forgotten way of life from the perspective of characters seeking purpose and enlightenment. Some are collaborations with his friend Joseph Vaughan as the Ol' Pioneers; others have morphed into Channel albums such as 2003 debut Tones Are Falling. Whatever the guise, all the material sampled demonstrates an intimacy that recalls Elliott Smith demos or Daniel Johnston.
"I've always thought of it as a gift," states Colby. "There's a reason that I can play music, so I started focusing on doing something with music that was going to do some good for someone else."
In the summer of 2005, Colby and Brent started playing monthly gigs at local retirement communities like Brighton Gardens, New Hope Manor, and Sagebrook Health Center in Cedar Park, dusting off old country standards and then taking requests. Lately, though, Colby hasn't been writing as much as he used to, focusing instead on spending more time with his three children, Jonah, Chloe, and Adeline, and his wife, Kimberly, who used to teach elementary school. The proud parents have decided recently to homeschool their kids. One room of the house has been converted into a kindergarten classroom, complete with a dry-erase board, desks, school posters for the days of the week and the alphabet, and small, handmade signs that say things like "God is Everywhere ... All we have to do is Look."
"I'm in charge of the music lessons," smiles Colby, "but right now they keep ending up as dance parties."
He does have one prize to show off in terms of educational progress: a recording of his son's first song. As he presses play on his iTunes, Jonah, 4, sings the first words that come to mind, "Go down the mountain, kiss a little birdy," as his father strums an acoustic guitar and encourages him along.
The circle won't be broken.
"This show is a testament to all the nice people in Austin," exclaims Chris Gregory after "All My Love." The rest of the C-Side Records family slowly migrates to the stage from the back of the coffee shop: Colby and Kimberly Pennington, who are celebrating their ninth anniversary this evening, sisters Rebecca Pennington and Heather McAllister, and the Channel's Thom Marshall.
Squeezed together onstage, appearing almost as one body jolting to the music, the collective elevates Zeppelin's country & western toe-tapper "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" to an all-out, old-fashioned, cowbell-bangin' hoedown. Knees are knocking, hands are slapping, and the stage is shaking. Page and Plant never stomped like this.
Well if the sun shines so bright,
Or on our way it's darkest night,
The road we choose is always right, so fine.
The paths of Golden Bear and the Channel are slowly diverging one is reaching for the stars, the other seeking steady ground but their faith, values, and tradition will undoubtedly keep them united in spirit. As the song begins to wind down, Gregory is barely audible over the pounding rhythm.
So of one thing I am sure,
It's a friendship so pure,
Angels singing all around.
In this moment, music and the spirit are one.
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