By Claire Bontempo, Natalia Fonseca, James Grandberry, Britny Eubank and Shannon Price
High ceilings and sunlight creeping in through stained-glass windows. People milling about before the service starts, shaking hands with the preacher. A joyous choir belting out hymns while the congregation taps their toes and nods their heads.
These “gospel church” images are not too far removed from what one might find at Strange Brew Lounge Side on a Sunday morning.
At Strange Brew’s “Gospel Brunch,” a free event held every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., people ranging from knee-high youngsters to white-haired older folks sit around tables and in fold-out chairs below a peaked ceiling. They face a low stage at the front of the room, chatting merrily, sipping coffee and snacking on pastries and breakfast tacos. Up on the platform, Strange Brew’s resident Purgatory Players, a revolving-door collection of local musicians, perform sets of folksy songs they describe as “gospel music for nondenominational folk.”
Their songs have roots in traditional gospel, but their focus is not so explicitly religious. And that is something some patrons really enjoy.
“I think their description’s very good–sort of gospel,” said Christy Hutton, a Strange Brew visitor from Colorado who, with her husband, has now attended two Gospel Brunches. “I like it because it’s not like some of the newer churches that have the guitar and stuff. The music is awful. And this is like real music. This is great.”
Sandy Coe, a regular Gospel Brunch attendant, agrees with Hutton.
“I think they compare quite beautifully [to traditional gospel music]. I think a lot of people leave here feeling the spirit and it’s through the music,” said Coe.
Coe elaborated further, saying the brunch is a way for her to start her week off right.
“It’s kind-of like a church feeling for me,” said Coe. “I just see everybody’s great moods and it sets me off in a good way.”
Ben Bochner, a new-to-Austin musician who jammed with the Purgatory Players for the first time recently, expressed a similar sentiment.
“This is real community and real church for me,” said Bochner, adding, “It’s the best of church. It’s the filet mignon of church.”
The brunch itself–and the Players partnership with it–has been going on for nearly three years, according to long-time member “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb. Newcomb said the arrangement began when Jeff Plankenhorn, a founder of the brunch, called him up with the idea.
“He wanted to do just an old, like R&B-based gospel band because it’s just so much fun to play that kind of music,” said Newcomb. “And I had been in a band called the Imperial Golden Crown Harmonizers that did basically the same things as this, but we would give the money to four different local charities each year. But he called me and he said, ‘hey do you want to do this old-time gospel band?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great. Why don’t we give the money to a charity or a local nonprofit?”
The band tip jar serves philanthropic purposes. Every Monday, a member of the band drives up to the Austin Food Bank to deliver some help.
At first, the Players tried to donate their earnings to different groups each week, but they eventually settled on regularly donating to the Austin Food Bank. Each week, a collection bucket makes its rounds and brunch-goers chip in what they choose. Strange Brew contributes as well, donating a dollar off every mimosa sold to the food bank. Then sometime later in the week, a member of the Players takes the money to the Food Bank.
Additionally, every March, the Players and Strange Brew raise money for the SIMS Foundation, which helps to provide affordable mental health services to Austin musicians.
Newcomb says that the philanthropy of the event is something he thinks motivates people to attend and might even contribute to some visitors’ feelings of fellowship.
“A lot of people come here because it’s fun and it’s a very clear way to do something for other people,” said Newcomb. “Like, you know like, ‘ok, I put $5 in here,’ there’s not really any question as to ‘I wonder how much of this is going to administrative costs’ or whatever. You know that one of us is going to drive it to the food bank tomorrow morning and give it to them. And, yeah, I guess there is that kind-of fellowship feeling of like, ‘let’s all just have fun and do something nice at the same time.’”
For many, the brunch is an event they not only enjoy, but intend to return to. Coe said she comes as frequently as she can and has for a couple of years. Even the Huttons think they will be coming back to the brunch the next time they are in Austin.
“We make our flight later to go back home, so we can come here,” said Hutton.