Born and raised in Iowa, my appreciation always seems to be inadequate. Not anymore.
Traveling to Maquoketa was an adventure in and of itself. When the directions on the Codfish Hollow Barn website
say, down a Hollow Drive (meaning a gravel road with rolling hills and trees surrounding it) they were not kidding. Just when I thought the road would take us to the middle of no where - with no GPS or phone service - there was that sign of hope, “Keep Going. You’re almost there!”
If you have ever been to a cattle sale, the “parking lot” looked very similar. In a cattle field full of cowpies, a number of cars, tents, and RVs filled the area instead of actual animals.
Near the car parking entrance, a line began to form as attendees waited for transportation to the show barn. In the distance a tractor was heard and then it emerged amidst the rolling hills and lusciously green trees and fields. Our chariot awaited us in farm-like fashion as Marvin (the friendly grandpa-like expert tractor driver) pulled the hayrack around for people to climb on board.
Rounding the curve to where the Codfish Hollow Barn stood, the sun began to set casting a dewy glow upon the hills surrounding the compound. Lights strung to and fro cast a rustically modern aura within the barn used to bail hay instead of hosting headlining bands. From the ceiling hung wooden carving in different shapes and symbols that stood as mementos of past bands who performed at the venue. Underneath the hollowed structure were rows of lawn chairs and haybails as makeshift seats on the side for those who forgot to bring a seat.
Andrew Bemis, the opening act for the night’s show, provide an introduction for those who were unaccustomed with the country twang of bluegrass music. The audience waited with hopeful anticipation for the strumming to begin from the slim character peeking at everyone through his wide rimmed spectacles. In his dark fedora sporting a feather-like feature on the side of it, he sat on a wooden chair in his common suit of suave chocolate brown hued pants and matching vest and jacket with a button up white shirt underneath.
Humidity so heavy a light sweat began to commence on the brown of all who watched as his fingers swiftly strummed the chords that ever so slightly began to rapidly take on a new tempo. As he expertly transitioned from the acoustic guitar to the banjo a song about trains began to bring about a new energy from the crowd. Just as a train begins to chug along picking up speed as it churns upon the tracks, the banjo represented those tracks, as his fingers became a blur to rapid beat. A soft, then distinct foot stomp to the beat took over and rose to the rafters as hoots and hollers gave way to their appraisal.
After revving up the drunkenly happy crowd, the main attraction for what they had traveled miles to see finally was upon them. When Bemis asked the crowd if they had ever seen John C. Reilly & Friends perform, it was if crickets were the only response as no one raised a hand.
With the biggest show on tour, 650 people attended compared to what the band is use to with 200 or 300 people. With a set list derived from 150 songs to choose from, they had no problem selecting tunes to go along with the rambunctious energy from the audience. Reilly explained the group must adjust the songs in accordance to the audience.
“If people are rowdy you have to stick to the rowdy songs,” he said in an interview after the show. “You can’t argue with the crowd, when they are enthusiastic and loud it’s love.”
With a sold-out show, the house was packed, but in the corner near the roped off area intended for the sound crew and organizers there was one empty seat with a name tag, “Grandma D.” This was a family barn, every aspect of it showed how Tiffany Biehl and her husband welcomed performers and attendees with open arms to their beautiful land.
As the curly haired character distinguished even from the back of the crowd, John C. Reilly emerged onto the stage from the back door. “Hello There!” Reilly exclaimed, as the crowd of fans went crazy with hoots and hollers. A look of seriousness cast upon Reilly’s brow as he put a finger to his mouth then to his ear as if to say hey, listen up and stop yelling.
“If you’ve got a camera, use it now,” he announced. “We came all this way, why not be here now. You can tell all your friends later that they f---'ed up for not being here. Now, stick your phones in your pockets and enjoy the show.”
And with that the six members broke out in music as the crowd began another wave of cheers and applause. What was once an uproar from adoring fans soon became silence as the chorus of the first song rang, “the old triangle went jingle jangle,” echoed throughout barn from the group’s perfectly tuned harmonies that seemed like second nature to the members. A crowd of young and old stood awestruck that this character who they had grown to adore through hilarious personalities in a number of popular films, could sing with such vigor of richness in his voice.
Deep in concentration and a connection his friends, Reilly gathered around one lone mic with the “pretty tree fairy,” Becky Stark, the tall blonde Tom Brosseau, the fiery Willie Watson—formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, along with Iowa native Dan Bern, and Sebastian Steinburg—formerly of Soul Coughing and these days a go-to bass sideman (Marc Ribot and Dixie Chicks).
“Our band is a collective of people. I think you can feel that on stage, it’s a community of people,” said Reilly. “A lot of music shows they have separate mics and separate monitors and headphones just blasting music at the audience. It separates the audience from you and when you have the singers on just one mic, it brings a kind of intimacy to the show.”
With this as the end to the group’s Midwest tour, they ended it at a barn located on a majestic farm, where much of the Bluegrass Country songs originated.
“This is like a dream, we were so happy when we pulled up here,” Reilly said. “You get brief snapshots of places when you move around, and this place was really stunning when we first arrived. It’s a really beautiful place.”
“I have never been deep into farmland areas like this before,” said Stark from the group, Lavender Diamond. “My heart just soared when we got near the farm, the birds and the flowers were just amazing. I think playing here definitely added to the atmosphere of our music.”
With a headband of lavender flower atop her dark brown hair framing a face with a smile to warm anyone’s heart and big eyes full of spunk and laughter. Stark and each member of the band brought a quirky side to his or her own character. Brosseau with his tall handsome modelesque build was introduced as an “underwear model” (jokingly by Reilly). When taunted by a member of the audience to “take it off” he did so, but to the woman’s dismay, it was just his jacket that he shed.
At one point, Reilly had asked multiple times for respect to the age-old tunes, even if they were somewhat slow in tempo.
Adding his flair of personality in-between songs he said, “Some of these songs are as old as the hills and the quiet songs are like marijuana, the longer you hold it in the higher you get.” He was met with a reply of laughter and cheers as the group jumped into action for the upcoming slow tunes about love and loss through the pain of heartbreak.
Whether or not the audience knew the words to each song's lyrics, the seasoned musicians stood as guides that led us through each crescendo or yoddeleeeooo. Swaying with the music the unbearable heat in the stuffy barn was almost forgotten. To acknowledge the rising temperature Reilly said, “When does it cool off in Iowa? December?”
Heat didn’t stop Reilly or any of the other members from continuing on with the show. Reilly didn’t even have to prove himself as a singer to this audience who knew him as an actor; his genuine sincerity and energetic expressions said it all even as he played his first guitar solo. Somewhat apprehensive prior to that solo his nerves went away as he finished with a sheepish grin toward the audience and a shrug as if to say, “hey I guess that wasn’t so bad!”
After a grand finale of all the singers gathered in an image of friendship around the lone mic, the performance came to an end. “Encore! Encore! Encore!” cried the audience with hopes that Reilly would make one more lasting appearance to those who now had a new appreciation for country bluegrass music. He delivered an encore to the pleased hoots and hollers of the energetic crowd. “No show is ever complete without this song,” Reilly said as he introduced the old tune, “Goodnight Irene.” With a repetitive chorus, “Goodnight, goodnight Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams,” the audience soon caught on and began to sing along after each member gave his or her own free styling solo. From Becky’s recognition to the beautiful hillside lit by the night’s moonlit sky, to Dan Bern’s clever rhyme “Sometimes we end up in Maquoketa.” The last solo went off with a boom with Reilly’s soulful rich undertones as the guitars stopped and his vehement voice filled the barn from the lowest level up to the top as it rang clear to every audience member’s ear. With a tip of his hat and another notorious sheepish grin, he said good night.
As the group’s First time playing in the Midwest together, Reilly explained they wanted to just feel it out. In case fans were wondering if Reilly & Friends would be back for another performance he replied, “Absolutely, this is a really special place for us.”