Good for Grapes are Surrey, BC’s answer to every thickly-instrumented folk-rock band that has ever disappointed you. The band is made up of Daniel McBurnie (vocals, acoustic guitars, harmonica), Graham Gomez (electric guitar, vocals), Alexa Unwin (keyboards, vocals), Robert Hardie (bass, vocals), Alex Hauka (cello), Greg McLeod (trombone, violin), and Will Watson (drums). In a style where it’s easy to under-utilize members, over-pretentiousize everything, and generally under-deliver, this west coast septet is a beacon of hope.
We’ve all seen bands with two extra acoustic guitarists who just double campfire chords or with violinists or horn players who don’t really play their instruments in tune. And Good for Grapes could have been that band, but instead, they defied my fears and masterfully delivered a thundering, compelling sound, orchestrated in unique and interesting ways. They slalomed through the cliches of the style, deftly reinventing them and using them to their advantage instead of just leaving them behind. Yes, they have a floor tom at the front of the stage for the singer to play. Yes, they have a violinist who doubles on trombone and a full-time cellist. Yes, they all play tambourines and shakers as needed throughout the set. Now let me be clear, none of these things are inherently evil, but they’ve become staples of live music in a way that makes me a little wary when I see the signs in the stage set up. But as I said, Good for Grapes are different. The singer plays the lonely tom with conviction, choosing patterns that lock in well with the drummer, accenting instead of just duplicating the patterns he already plays. The violinist/trombonist not only plays violin well and works together with the cello as a section across the band, he also plays trombone with a tonal tour-de-force, ripping sheets on melodic lines and giving an orchestral girth to the bottom of the band when needed. Their group percussion parts provide thoughtful additions to the texture of the group and are executed with precise timing, filling exactly the niche they should.
At first, their set was seemed pretty front-loaded. I had heard the two singles I recognized from CBC Radio 2 (“Skipping Stone” and “Show Me the Ropes”) within the first 5 or so tunes. Always a gutsy move. Getting your hits out of the way early must mean you think you have something that’s really going to knock me on my ass. They weren’t wrong. I enjoyed the set thoroughly from then on out. Highlights included a dynamic and surprisingly sludgy cover of the White Stripes classic “Seven Nation Army” (this featured the band bringing the tune to complete silence with us waiting on a final chorus, the whole bar clinging to the edge of our seats save for some oblivious Foosballers), several wonderfully noisy interludes (featuring a sort of sonic texture I didn’t exactly expect from a band with this kind of configuration) and their tune “Stung,” whose lilting odd-meter grooves and rapidly shifting textural backgrounds provided the perfect frame, as do many of their songs, for the joyful declamation of the messiness of human interaction. Regret, taking chances, and getting hurt: all the best reasons to write songs. When it comes right down to it, Good for Grapes are a group of seven talented musicians who serve their undeniably infectious songs with tasteful musical arrangement and a genuinely bright and welcoming stage presence.
This sort of group personality was evident off the stage as well. I spoke with a few of them after the show, all of whom were humble and genuinely easy to talk to. I’d have discussed gear and provoked tour stories from them all night, but it was past midnight on a Tuesday, so after a false exit followed by remembering to go back and pay my tab, I walked home. I walked home happy.