The GrapeVine, Iowa’s only listening room, is a labor of love12/26/2012
Bonita Crowe is exhausting. She sweeps into the GrapeVine one chilly morning toting a coffee large enough to drown a small dog, and from the moment she starts to talk, her passion and positive attitude are apparent. And infectious.
“A lot of the artists that we book here, this is their career,” she said. “I’ve had musicians tell me, ‘Bonita, what I made at the GrapeVine paid my rent.’ That’s why we’re so adamant about supporting live music.”
Crowe started The GrapeVine in 2006 to host in-home wine tastings. A year later, Crowe and her husband Keith had moved their offices into The GrapeVine’s current location in Clive. However it wasn’t until Crowe met singer/songwriter Chad Elliott that the idea of a listening room came up. After hosting a couple shows in what was initially just an office (“The artists would literally set up to play right in front of Keith’s desk,” Crowe said), the pair converted their office space into an intimate, RSVP-only listening room. Eventually they added soundman Johnny Audette, and the three of them have made The GrapeVine into one of the metro area’s most unique musical experiences.
“As far as I know, this is the only listening room in Iowa,” Audette said.
“I understand when people want to go to bars,” Crowe added. “But that’s a different experience. Here, everyone comes in, sits down, and just listens to the music.”
The atmosphere has been a big hit — both with patrons, as well as the musicians who’ve taken the stage.
“This is a great place for performers to come, because it’s a much more intimate setting,” said Des Moines singer Heather MacLennan. “You don’t have the banging of bussing tables going on, so it’s very refreshing to perform here. But it’s also a little nerve-wracking, because you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got it right. People ARE listening to you, and they ARE going to hear everything.”
But running such a unique venue on such a small scale isn’t easy. Neither Audette nor the Crowes draw a dime from their work at the venue.
“We give 100 percent of ticket sales to the artists. People — even some of the artists — have said, ‘Why don’t you guys keep a little cut of that,’ but it’s something that Keith and I started to support musicians. We just don’t feel right about taking money. It’s truly a labor of love. We all volunteer. Every weekend.”
To pay the bills, Bonita acts as booking manager for Chad Elliott and Iowa City’s Dave Zollo — something she calls her “true forte” — while Keith was recently laid off after being with a company for 10 years as an operations manager.
“Now he’s doing trucking for UPS, but that’s temporary until we find him another management position,” Crowe said.
Working what amounts to a free, part-time job on top of full-time work to keep the lights on is taxing.
“You’ve got to have bodies in the seats to keep from going under,” Crowe said. “We’ve come so close. Every month, it’s like, ‘Should we quit? Let’s just fold.’ Because it’s tough.”
But the Clive-based “labor of love” persists, driven largely by Crowe’s force of personality.
“(That’s) one of the things that really carries the GrapeVine,” Keith said. “The level of excitement that (Bonita) brings.”
“What makes this place is the good people that run it,” MacLennan agreed. “They are good people, and that’s what really sticks. The music business can be downright ugly at times, and it’s really hard to find good people. These guys are those people.” CV