Green and Orange

Dartmouth alt-country outfit The Grass adds to its rocketing rep with a new LP, Oranges. Johnston Farrow gets the seven-piece in a room to chat.

Street sense The Grass take their act on the road. photo Darryl James

The young band is a joy to behold. Not yet tainted by egos, inter-band power struggles or the hardships of the business, meeting a group of fresh musicians is something akin to walking on a beach never seen by another person.

In its collective life, The Grass is close to a deserted island. The seven-piece Dartmouth band—six men and one woman ranging in age from 20 to 23 years old—comes across bright-eyed and enthusiastic about its mix of Beatles-inflected rock and Gram Parsons country. Whereas other bands have collapsed under the weight of so many creative minds, The Grass is far from that happening. In fact, when the members of The Grass argue, it’s about anything but the band.

“Not about band stuff,” lead singer/bassist Willis Ryan says around a cramped coffee shop table. “It’s about music, comic books, video games. Stuff like that.”

It seems that getting seven people together at the same time and converting their aggressive music-loving Dartmouth friends to alt-country music remains the biggest obstacles to members of The Grass.

“It’s not the easiest sell all the time,” Willis says. “It’s not the hardest though.”

“It’s an easy sell to our parents,” drummer/vocalist Dylan Ryan, Willis’s brother, says, laughing. “Not so much to the friends.”

The Grass formed in the summer of 2003 with brothers Ryan, pianist Adam Burke, vocalist/guitarist/harmonica player Padtrek McNally and guitarist Nicholas Wolfe. They added violin player Lindsay Rogers to the mix in March 2005 and, soon after, Geoff Tobin on slide guitar and organ.

“We were friends in high school and we just always had different bands going,” says Willis Ryan. “This one was born out of playing acoustic guitars, singing and having fun in the summertime. We used to play tough, fast music—it was really noisy. After awhile that got to be too much on the head.”

Both Willis Ryan and McNally liked to write slower-tempo rock and country songs that called on Bob Dylan, The Band and the Rolling Stones. They decided to pursue the new direction and, with the group firmly established, played any stage big enough.

The Grass quickly gained a reputation as a live act to watch. The band’s release show for its debut disc Mulgrave at the former Khyber Club last January resulted in a line down Barrington Street and rumours of police being called to the venue after an unruly audience member decided to do damage to the club. Another gig, a battle of the bands competition at the Gorsebrook, ended in a mass singalong well after the staff pulled the electricity.

“We finally got up after 1am, after it was supposed to be closed,” Willis says. “We played our first song, then started playing the second one—it was too crazy up front, everyone was smashed, a friend was stripping on stage. They shut us down hard.”

Reputation in place, The Grass headed back to the studio to make their second disc, Oranges. The septet recorded at the Music Room and at Soundmarket Studios, producing it themselves along with sound engineer Justin Dakai, on half-inch analogue tape.

“After we recorded the bed tracks on the first one, we were like, ‘We need to get tape.’ The tape machine sits right there in the studio and you could see it there,” says Dylan Ryan. “It just sounds so much better. It’s warmer on the drums and bass and on the piano as well.”

Oranges plays like an album made by a band 20 years older than The Grass. Ambitious, full of world-weary harmonies, whiskey-soaked vocals and impressive guitar interplay, on record The Grass resonates as more mature than its members’ ages imply.

After the CD release this weekend, the band hits the highways for a string of shows across Canada in what will be their first major tour, something daunting to even the most seasoned acts. In other words, catch The Grass before the toils of a music career get to them.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” Lindsay Rogers says. “I like having a solid group of friends. We’ll probably be playing together for a long time and I find that comforting.”

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