Coby Batty and Paul Watson make performing look easy. 

Hello GriefBirds. What's Happening?

Coby Batty's black wolf dog Hazel walks into Helen's through the broken screen door. She wags at a table of three before a waitress notices and motions to Batty. He leaves Hazel back on the sidewalk with a gentle warning to stay put.

Batty returns to the bar holding his bottle of San Pellegrino. "She's a street animal," he says with a wry grin. "Like me."

"I'm not anymore," he finishes saying, sitting back down at the bar and pulling a pack of smokes from his pocket. "But I put in my time."

Longhaired and a little scruffy, Batty is one of the frontmen for GriefBirds, the latest band by Batty and Paul Watson, which began as a duet called Coby and Watty. The two have been friends since their early days as upstart musicians in the late 1970s.

Batty was legendary musician John Zorn's first singer in the late '70s. During his street-animal days in New York he lived in a converted Italian storefront and performed at Little Club 57, a den of the avant-garde.

GriefBirds play pop music, though it's not the pop music you read about in Rolling Stone. Because the waltzes and cabaret music GriefBirds play are not popular today.

Batty gets excited about his idea of pop music, talking between sips of Pellegrino and trips to take a resolute Hazel back outside. "No matter what we do, we always want to make it pop," he says. "No matter what literary things, no matter what darker things. Songs that have bite. We're trying to make some pop in the sense when it was meaningful and not meaningless."

Coby and Watty just recently became GriefBirds. They added a permanent rhythm section and felt they needed a new name. Jim Thomson, from Bio Ritmo and Plasmodium, has played drums with the group for about a year, and Armistead Wellford, from Love Tractor, plays bass.

The name GriefBirds refers to a 1960s folk song by Ed Sanders called "Coming Down." It's about a guy who finds himself in a black pit of ashes. Everything is dark, filthy and murky. All he can see is a bird in the pit with him. The lyrics of the song go, "I said hello to the GriefBird. 'Hello GriefBird, what's happening?'"

The point is "No matter how incredibly bad it can get," Batty says, "you can still have the life to say 'Hello, what's happening?'"

"I brought you my résumé," Paul Watson says, handing a stack of papers across the table at World Cup II on a fine Saturday afternoon. "I had to update it anyway," he says, handing over a paper clip.

Here are some excerpts: "Paul Watson aka "Watty" ... born 16 March 1952 Kentucky ... instruments: cornet, guitar, singing, banjo, mandolin, etc. ... founding member of ground-breaking '80s band Orthotonics ... tour with David Lowery ... records and tours with pop band Sparklehorse ... records, performances, tours with: ... Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, Eugene Chadbourne, Vic Chestnut, Half-Japanese ... Albert King, Michael Hurley ... Eagle-Eye Cherry, Neneh Cherry, Charlie Byrd ... ." The discography is pretty doggoned long, too.

Watson is neat and trim, small-framed and wiry. His face is also muscular. "He's an athlete," Batty jokes. Which horn players must be, in fact, since the instrument is so physically demanding.

Watson's first original-concept band was the Orthotonics. The band's minimalist pop "kind of set the tone for everything I've done," he says.

Batty sat in with the Orthotonics from time to time, and the two drifted in and out of the same circles in the late '70s and early '80s, meeting up again in Richmond in the middle of the Me Decade. Coby and Watty was born about three years ago.

"I had no idea that 20 years later it would go down like this," Watson laughs.

Batty and Watson have been making music for a long time. They have a way of making it look easy. One day at practice, the group was working on a tune, and they were worried because it sounded too pretty. So Batty said he'd come up with some depressing lyrics to balance things out. He sang the words as the band played and never changed them.

The GriefBirds hardly ever practice. Watson says it helps them maintain their beginner's luck. "When we played the Knitting Factory [the alternative-music club in New York]," he says, "we practiced in the car on the way there." That was it.

A couple of times last year they handed out strips of paper to the audience, told everybody to write a line and then made a song out of it on the spot. "It's not improvisation really," Watson says. He calls it "automatic technique."

"We also like to introduce the staff," Batty says. During the interlude when most bands introduce its members, Batty is onstage letting people know about the good folks tending the tables, bar and dishes. "Keeps the drinks coming," he laughs. "The feelings we're talking about [in our songs] are serious, but we try not to take it that seriously."

Are there serious plans for this new, complete band?

"I don't know," Batty says, going with his gut after trying to come up with some grand plans (besides the forthcoming LP).

"We want to be in listening clubs," Watson says, hinting that the immediate is more important, and that people should shut up while he's playing. "I'd like to play at that new place in Charlottesville, what's it called?"

Starr Hill?

"Yeah, I think we'd do well there."


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