When I started talking to Sean Moeller of Daytrotter.com (who signs his missives as “Mr. Daytrotter” amusingly) in May about his idea of “an RV Tour of Iowa Barns” I was both excited and a little worried, frankly.
Sean said that he wanted to give something back to Iowa– his home state– in addition to raising the awareness of the “recording studio with a website” that is Daytrotter.com to its neighbors.
Indeed, while music geeks like myself have been aware of the freely-downloadable mp3’s of the recording sessions done in the Rock Island-based studio– few others I interact with personally (i.e.: not Internet-based life) are aware of the musical bounty that is Daytrotter.com.
Daytrotter has been compared to the infamous BBC Radio One John Peel Session done for almost 40 years by the late DJ-cum-tastemaker where bands recorded special sessions due to musicians’ union rules which resulted in oftentimes better performances than were captured for their albums. Similarly (though not due to labor rules) Sean and his staff of merry recordists are credited with bringing great bands and artists to the attention of the music community at large by recording special sessions, too.
These sessions, usually lasting a couple of hours are a stripped-down, almost “Unplugged” affair where the acts are encouraged to use the equipment– largely vintage– that the studio has which includes an array of pianos, keyboards, mics, amps and drums.
Many of the bands I’ve talked to who have done sessions at Daytrotter compare the experience to what it might have been like to record at Sun Studios during its heyday. Come in, plug in and record the magic– very much a warts-n-all approach as there isn’t much editing or “do-overs.” In some cases it gives the bands an opportunithy to re-imagine a song already released, or try a new song or possibly a choice cover.
The studio is in a perfect location– Rock Island is near I-80 and any act touring the U.S. will likely be driving by. The bands who are invited to do a session tend to be of the D.I.Y. aesthetic anyway so the inspiration that sometimes comes with improvising a session tends to be captured, making every session a gem.
Sean told me that up until the Daytrotter Barnstormer Tour, he hadn’t done any promotion of Daytrotter to speak of. Certainly, Daytrotter sells itself– any blog who covers the acts that Daytrotter records has linked to them at one time or another.
The idea was a simple one– take a handful of acts who have recorded with Daytrotter and take them on a “Caravan of Stars”– type tour to the towns and cities of Iowa and surrounding states providing a free show to the people. It was not designed to be a massive revenue-generating event– just a way to give back. These free shows would largely be put on in the most iconic of Iowa structures– the barn.
While I relished the idea of a collection of hip bands selected by Daytrotter playing for free in quirky barn venues, I was concerned about the turnout or how the promotion would work. Of course I’d do what I could from playbsides.com and I was spreading the word every chance I got– but having been in bands in the 90’s and knowing a bunch of regional bands over the years I’m well aware of the fickle tendencies of small town audiences. There is an addage shared extensively about the success of a band in Iowa and how many cover songs they do. My hopes were that that hip indie-lovin’ crowd existed where they hadn’t 20 years ago. Plus, the bands he picked were largely unknown– I didn’t know any of them (except Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin) before the tour and I follow the site!
So, did the tour go as planned? Given the really short window Sean gave himself to pull bands, transportation and venues together it was an astonishing success! On July 6th Sean had all of the details sorted out to post to his site. It would run five days starting July 26th and have Local Natives– a Silverlake, CA band as the one constant act. The other acts would dovetail in and out of the lineup as their schedules allowed.
I managed to catch two of the shows– the one in my hometown at Mooney Hollow Barn, and the West Liberty, IA show at the Secrest Octagonal Barn.
Mooney Hollow Barn Show – Sunday, 7/26/09
The Bellevue show didn’t have the attendance that we would have hoped. Sean was hoping for at least 100 people per stop, and the promotion for the event locally wasn’t extensive. I had a carload of friends coming in from Cedar Rapids and I knew that my family was going to show. The Bellevue Herald that week had a front-page article on the show and I think there were a couple of other places, but it was a Sunday-night show so that is usually a tough night for a draw.
As many times as I had driven past Mooney Hollow Barn on Hwy 52 with its iconic silo with the fiddle painted on it, I’d never actually been in it. It is an amazing venue– a barn converted to a dancehall in the late 70’s it enjoyed a pretty constant flow of middle-tier country acts until it closed in the early 90’s. It holds about 600 people and has a poured concrete dancefloor with the venue logo on it. The stage is outfitted like the Grand Ol’ Opry and has posters of some of the acts that had played there over the years. It has a two bars and a kitchen, so you can get food there, too.
It was a great place to see these bands, and every one of them commented on how cool Mooney Hollow was. The crowd was receptive and excited to see the bands and showed the bands their appreciate. Beer was cheap, and the crowd was ready for the show.
The first band up with a new band out of Chicago called Stranger Waves. They were raw, punky pop and kicked things off in high-gear. They played a 45-minute set running through all of the songs on their EP that they just recorded. Humorously, they needed to bust out their laptop to burn CD’s to sell to folks, but I think they sold a few! This was the only stop on this tour they played, but I think they were going to play some Chicago shows with Catfish Haven after their Madison stop. Certainly a band to watch!
Next up was Paleo, who did a solo acoustic set that was astonishing. Super low-key, but the guy is a gifted songwriter. I thought that this must have been what it was like to see Dylan when he played the coffee shops in New York City at the beginning of this career. He took a break in the middle of his set to let a girl he was touring with named Natalie Jean (from Flagstaff, apparently) play a small set of songs. She did a couple of original songs and a cover from The Wizard of Oz. A pretty girl with a pretty voice– I can’t find anything about her anywhere. I gave her a business card, maybe she’ll reach out to me.
From San Francisco, originally from Canada is Daniela Gesundheit aka Snowblink who brought with her a small band. Her Gibson SG with vestigial deer antlers seemed to convey the earthy-yet ethereal sound of Snowblink. She used two mics– one with a more dry mix, and the second mic an avalanche of reverb. I still have a major crush on the song “Stand Where A Fruit Tree Drops The Things It Doesn’t Need” from her newest release Long Live. She encourages audience participation on percussion, and she handed out bells to the crowd, which was neat. She invited the crowd to jingle along.
Shifting gears again, we got the R&B tinged rock from Chicago’s Catfish Haven. This was when things got back on to the party groove. These guys set up, plugged in, and damn near burned the barn down with their set. I had been listening to their new album Devastator regularly to get ready for their show. Two standout tracks from that amazing album are “Set In Stone” and “Play the Fool” I played it that weekend for my family to get them in the mood for the show. I can’t say enough about this band– they are like an update of Motown act Rare Earth. Everyone was on the floor shaking ass, which is the way it should be. In the middle of the funky mahem they pulled out a cover of “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” by The Greg Kihn Band and I thought the roof was going to cave in!
Their set was done too early– they didn’t do “Play the Fool” and the crowd wanted to get more songs, but they stuck with the agreed timeslot and let Local Natives get set up. That is one of the impressive things about these shows– they get done pretty early, so even if it is a week night show, you get home at a decent time.
I was a little concerned about how Local Natives was going to follow the sheer rawk power displayed by Catfish Haven. Well, once the band got set up I didn’t worry any longer!
Local Natives was the surprise of the evening for me (and pretty much everyone else). Two songs into their set, and I turned to my friend Al from Bellevue and said “WTF are we seeing!?!” I was astonished by how polished they were– spot-on harmonies and percussion-heavy arrangements. It was like seeing U2 before they got all PopMart and Blackberry– when they were hungry. The band performed with such commitment and emotion– I hadn’t seen a band perform like this in years. Their album Gorilla Manor has been delayed a couple of times, and it should be coming out in October. The set closer “Sun Hands” is nothing short of insanity on stage– raw emotion. They are playing a bunch of shows at Spaceland in LA this month before they tour Europe again. If you get a chance make sure you catch this band while the tickets are still cheap.
After Local Natives was done, people hung out for a while buying merch finishing beers. A bunch of us were seriously considering driving to Madison for the next night’s show. Thankfully, the 2-hour drive home sobered me up enough to just wait to hit the West Liberty show that Tuesday.
Secrest Octagonal Barn – Tuesday, 7/28/09
My wife and daughter didn’t make the Sunday show in Bellevue, but I convinced them to make the West Liberty show– it was less than an hour’s drive from Cedar Rapids so it was pretty easy to commit to. The only bummer for my wife was that she wanted to see Catfish Haven and their last show was in Madison the previous night. This show had Snowblink and Local Natives from Bellevue, and substituted Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin and Hip Hop MC Mac Lethal to the bill. I was vaguely familiar with SSLYBY through Daytrotter and only had a couple of minutes to listen to the Daytrotter session for Mac Lethal, but it sounded pretty good, and I knew that he was part of a group of MC’s that was getting some buzz.
The barn as described was an Octagonal barn and was a facility one could rent out, so it was set up for audiences, and the show ended up being in what would be considered the hay loft on the second floor.
The show was supposed to start at 6:30PM so we raced down there, and found out that things were running late and they hadn’t even set Snowblink up– who was the first act in this lineup.
My daughter was pretty happy to see Snowblink, and their sound is pretty much up her alley. The set was very similar to the Bellevue show which included a Snowblinkish version of “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, which was pretty cool. This time, however, they invited members of Local Natives to come on stage to help with percussionAfter the show, she went up and introduced herself to Daniela and they talked briefly about a possible show at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
By the time Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin hit the stage there was a pretty large crowd, over the 100 desired, I think. They ripped through their set with good energy, I wasn’t as familiar with their songs, but I’d definitely see them again.
To shake things up, Sean put Local Natives up following SSLYBY leaving Mac Lethal as the last act of the night. I was really excited for Sherry and Rae and Rae’s friend Chelsea to hear Local Natives because I was so amazed by their live show.
They didn’t disappoint– in fact during their tribal percussion the floor started bouncing a bit unnervingly. I tried to reassure myself that this barn had been here since 1883 and withstood storms and the weight of hay for most of those years and a little bit of bouncing from a crowd of people wouldn’t be a challenge.
Their set was pretty similar to the Bellevue show and ended with “Sun Hands” which is an excellent way to end their set. I tried to capture the energy of that song in the picture above– the band is all over the stage for that song. I know that Local Natives made a bunch of new fans that night.
Next up was Mac Lethal. He was having to make do as a one-man show as his DJ/Producer was not able to make this show, so he commented about having to stop his set to switch songs. I think that he is a really skilled MC, but I got the definite idea he was a bit uncomfortable following these bands– certainly he wasn’t able to showcase the constant energy of his regular set having to mess around with his sampler. For whatever reason, his set had more negative tone to it than the other bands. He started his set talking about driving around lost that day and seeing a monkey doll hanging from a noose in a tree and dove into a tirade about that. Certainly, if he saw that it is pretty bad, and there is some of that in the in the sticks of Iowa. Not that I’m opposed to some pissed off MC’s, but the vibe of his set was markedly different than the rest of the show. He commented on the other acts performances being great a couple of times describing Local Natives show as effectively handing Jesus his pink slip, which I thought was pretty funny. One track I thought was pretty good was one called “Black Widow.” I need to spend some more time with his catalog and maybe see him in a different setting before I’d ever dismiss him as an artist.
I heard that the following night he collaborated with Local Natives– I would have loved to see that. I like MC’s fronting live bands, and I think the right combination can make for a powerful performance.
As I write this, Sean has started to “leak” the information about another Barnstormer run in October. Starting on October 8th and going to October 13th, the show will hit three of the barns from the July run– Maquoketa (10/10), Bellevue (10/11) and West Liberty (10/12). This is great news! The Biehls, who generously lent their barn in July had over 200 people at their show! We have enough time now, to really build the buzz for the Bellevue show, and I’m sure West Liberty will get the crowd from Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Iowa City again.
The bands confirmed so far is a band from California called Dawes, who recalls The Band, CSNY and a little CCR and has amazing harmonies to boot! Christopher Denny is a folksy balladeer who’s voice sounds a lot like Nashville Skyline-era Dylan. Another band committed is Milwaukee band Maritime who has a jangly UK pop influence like Smiths or the Alarm. Again, bands I’d never heard of, but already becoming a fan of. For repeat performers we get the dreamy, wonderful Snowblink (yay!) and Paleo. Apparently there will be other acts added as well.
Sean Moeller is one of those rare guys who just seems to know how to jump headlong into a project like the Daytrotter Barnstormer Tour and catch lightning in a bottle. He trusts that the people of state he grew up in will come out and support it. The buzz is growing, too.
So, if you have any possible way to get to Iowa to any of these shows– do it. If this run of shows is anything like July, it is something you will remember for a long time. Good people, great bands in barns.
Daytrotter Barnstormer 7/26/09 at Mooney Hollow Barn Slideshow
Daytrotter Barnstormer 7/28/09 at Secrest Barn Slideshow