Features & Stories

Story by Trudy Frisk
Photo by Annette McLeod

There’s no reserved seating at a concert in a cow barn.

Musicians in photo: L -R
Ed Chilton, Michelle Zwolak, Neil Burnett & Christine Zaenker.
We’d gone to the historic Tranquille Farm fifteen minutes from downtown Kamloops for an afternoon of Celtic music.  So, when we heard bagpipes, we followed the piper like the trusting townsfolk of Hamelin. He led us to a partially open door at one end of a long barn.  We were puzzled.  We’d peered in at the other end and seen piles of potatoes; a connection to Ireland, perhaps; but no musicians.  Then we heard, just inside the door, a soft guitar, joined by a cello, accompanying a clear voice. Surely that steady drumming was a bodhran? We clutched our lawn chairs and hurried in, eager to claim the best seats.  “We’re just practicing”, said the singer firmly. “We won’t start for a while.” 

Well, it seemed like an odd location for a stage, but we and our lawn chairs backed out obediently.  Joining others, we set up on the grassy common where previous concerts had been held, between the former bovine maternity barn and the calf barn. While we waited we admired pumpkins, calculated the height of a nearby silo and watched families emerge from the corn maze. Whispers went around, “Too much wind and chance of rain, the concert’s likely in the dairy barn today.”  They were right.

Eventually the doors behind us opened. We strode into the impromptu theatre/ dairy barn and hastily set up our chairs facing the four musicians. Harpist Neil Burnett, cellist Christina Zaenker, guitarist Michelle Zwolak and shuttle pipe player Ed Chilton, stood beneath high narrow windows open to the late fall winds. Fans who followed us in surveyed the situation and quickly arranged their chairs for maximum advantage.  Stanchions, gutters for drainage, a sloped floor, and a concrete walkway ran the length of the big barn separating musicians from their audience in this unorthodox theatre. As the audience zipped up their jackets and wrapped blankets around their knees, musicians flexed their fingers and began to play.

It was marvelous. The Skye Boat Song, and favourite jigs and reels, satisfied people’s expectations of familiar music.  Original compositions based on traditional Celtic music incorporated rock, folk, and roots, styles well known to these versatile musicians.

By turns lively and nostalgic, jubilant and mournful, music filled the space where cows once contently convened.  Acoustics were surprisingly good because, musicians say, earth absorbs the sound so it doesn’t bounce back and echo. Even power fluctuations during the second set didn’t spoil it. This rural setting, where the audience could look out onto fields and the lake and hills beyond them, added to the experience. Of course, there are always critics: at least that’s how we explained the children who persistently threw rocks at the half-open barn doors. Shutting the doors squelched the children but spoiled the view.  All in all, it turns out that a dairy barn, though chilly in late fall, is actually a good musical venue.

However, I know from experience that, when considered as theatres, not all barns are equal.  Years ago, when the only ‘theatre’ in Kamloops was the High School auditorium,
the Vancouver Symphony came to town.  The auditorium was already booked.  No problem, insisted the undaunted organizers, the Symphony would perform in the Kamloops Exhibition Association buildings, the same location which also hosted the annual bull sale, and Provincial Winter Fair.  Kamloops loved its culture as much as it did its cows. Residents, dressed in their finest, arrived at the KXA for an evening of Bach and Bartok. My family, excited about B.C.’s finest classical music, was early enough to secure seats in the third row.  Lucky us: we actually heard the music.  Later arrivals seated in the sixth row and back, spent an evening watching formally dressed musicians performing elaborate mime.  The design of the building meant that sound simply died beyond the first few rows. From a musical standpoint, the evening was not a success; but it probably hardened the determination of classical music devotees to build a true theatre. 

The KXA featured in a different musical experience years later when Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show was booked into the same building which had defeated the Vancouver Symphony. A slightly different crowd, but just as enthusiastic, turned out for the performance.  This took place during the Provincial Winter Fair bull sale, so space had to be made for the band. Hay bales were piled around the room and there was a strong bovine odor. Security was tight.  Once the paid, ticketed, legitimate fans had been searched for contraband, and entered the room, doors were locked.   We weren’t spoilt. No chairs for us; we had to stand.  My husband and I seated our son on a stack of hay bales so he could see, and we stood, impatiently waiting for the main act. As the notes of Sylvia’s Mother, and Cover Of The Rolling Stone, energized an already enthusiastic audience, we became aware of a rhythmic thumping noise that wasn’t coming from the official drum set.

Someone outside was methodically ramming his truck into the big double doors, just behind our hay bales. We never found out why he hadn’t been allowed in.  No ticket?  Too much contraband?  Whatever the reason, he seemed willing to sacrifice his truck, the doors and a few of the audience so he could hear Dr. Hook. It seemed to take a long time for security to collar the errant driver, but, eventually there was silence from the outside. Ray Sawyer hadn’t even paused. Acoustics?  It was Dr. Hook; it was loud.  In that era, any concert where an irate fan didn’t break down the doors was a good concert.

The Celtic concert at Tranquille had none of the deficiencies of Dr. Hook and the Vancouver Symphony at the KXA. In fact it seemed very appropriate in the farm setting. As piper Ed Chilton, reminds us “Originally most Celtic musicians lived in farm communities. There were kitchen parties, ceilidhs out in the barn. Celtic music was rural music. Musicians playing traditional airs in a restored dairy barn on an old farm slowly coming back to life just close that circle. “

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

© 2023 Interactive Broadcasting Corporation