On a rainy Friday night in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, the crowd at the Sunset Tavern is different from the usual clientele of drunken fishermen and guys lured in by the promise of cheap beer and a loud band. Tonight, the place is packed... with women -- thirty and forty-somethings swaying, shouting, laughing and guzzling beer like college girls. They’re nominally here to support a cause – it’s a pro-choice fundraiser – but really, they’re groupies, here to enjoy their favorite band, The Kegels: an eponymous mommy punk band belting tunes from their latest CD, Totally Effaced. The songs we sway to tonight are tongue-in-cheek crowd-pleasers like “Minivan Mom,” “It’s All My Fault,” and several ditties about titties.
I first noticed Kegels founder, Penny Webb, at our kids’ elementary school, just after the morning late bell rang. As I rushed out of the school, flushed with adrenaline from trying to get my kindergartener ready and out the door on time and dragging my three-year-old by the hand, Penny strolled into school smiling, holding hands with her son and three-year old -- late bell be damned.
Then came the inevitable playground talk. In our community, the not-so dirty little secret is that there’s a creative renaissance happening among our parenting peers. We pick up the kids at school and see women smeared with clay or paint, on the playground we hear talk about stories being written, scrap books being created, houses being renovated. At a recent parents’ night out, no one wanted to compare notes about teachers, everyone was too busy talking about the bands they’d been in.
Penny is no different, although her personal creative renaissance, I soon learned, had an additional impetus. In September, 2003, her husband Dean was diagnosed with brain cancer. After they got through the initial hard stuff, Penny and Dean adopted a carpe diem approach to life, which included a family trip to Europe. By March, Penny decided to make her dreams come true and created a band, despite the fact that she couldn’t play an instrument.
That spring, in a hospital room where Dean was recovering from a seizure, Penny, Dean and his mother started developing songs. Then Penny went in search of band-mates.
“I first noticed Jen at pre-school drop-off,” Penny remembers. “All the other mothers pulled up in cars that were either quiet or filled with screaming kids. But Jen’s Suburu was thumping. I figured anyone who played her car music that loud belonged in my band.”
Jen Trujillo, it turns out, was already a rock chick, the veteran of several Seattle bands – Acid Cats Flying Circus and Sick Little Monkey among them—and she had an itch to scratch.
And so the Kegels were born. Jen taught Penny how to play the bass guitar (“hit that dot!”) and they began collaborating on songs, including the band’s signature tune, “The Kegel Beat.”
Hey you there!
Get outta your seat
The Kegels debuted in October, 2004, at a party to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Dean being cancer-free.
Like any band worth its salt, the Kegels have had their rocky times. They count some thirteen collaborators, including Penny’s friend Beth, a founding Kegels member and the band’s drummer, who left because of “creative difficulties.” “We got through it,” Jen says. “After a lot of tears, emotional emails, flowers and low-carb chocolate.”
The Kegel’s current line-up has been stable for a while, thanks to the addition of Jim Wood, the band’s new drummer. “I was intrigued at the idea of playing with the Kegels, because rock is usually macho. I offered to sit in, but I didn’t want to join the band. But in the end, any good music is about communicating. This band just represents the bubbling up of a different kind of angst. And you know what? Motherhood is macho!”
Mellow, gray-haired and refreshingly angst-free, Jim’s presence on stage serves as the perfect back-drop to Penny and Jen's singing, wailing and laughing. When Jen leans back in full rock star mode, her guitar wrapped around her like a toddler, Jim sits unobtrusively in the back like a benevolent husband, his drums resonating throughout every song.
Nice story, you say, heartwarming and inspiring, but are the Kegels any good? I wondered the same thing, as I walked into the Sunset Tavern on that rainy Friday night. I needn’t have worried. The Kegels sound a little bit like an edgier, maternal version of the Indigo Girls – with that same interplay of sweet and sour, rough and soft. Their songs span the musical genres, from the country-western feel of “Mini-Van Mom” to a rap-inspired rendition of Dr. Seuss’s “Too Many Daves.” Jen, who in one minute wipes out the crowd with a tender version of the Sesame Street song, suddenly shakes the floor to the “Kegel Beat” in the next. And Penny brings it all home with “It’s All My Fault” and “Baby Jail.”
With success comes opportunity. The Kegels recently headlined a “Parents’ Rock” concert to raise money for the school PTA. There’s been talk of raising money for cancer research and of participating in a woman’s fundraising alliance. Women’s liberation is a cause that remains near and dear to their hearts, so they envision organizing a city-wide “Mom’s Night Out.”
The band remains inextricably linked with Dean and the ups and downs of his illness. “He loves the aliveness of it all,” says Penny. In the spring of 2005 Dean had another cancer scare and again underwent surgery. In early November, shortly after the release of their debut CD, the Kegels participated in the Seattle-based ROCKGRRL festival. By late November, Dean’s cancer had returned with a vengeance, but a miracle Christmas remission followed and Dean’s condition currently remains stable.
With a grateful-yet-watchful
eye on Dean, The Kegels plow ahead with their zest for living in the
now. “We want to encourage other women to do things for
themselves,” says Jen. “Whether it’s going out to a bar to hear
music and drink or getting up on a stage to sing.” “If we can do it,
they can do it!” echoes Penny. Backup
singer Amy Kastelin, who is making a first foray into songwriting,
adds her own personal gratitude, “Jen and Penny made it okay for me to
To learn more about the Kegels,
or to buy their CD and other merchandise, check out www.thekegels.com.