There’s a gem hidden within the rolling cornfields of East Central Iowa. Nestled within a hollow, far removed from any city lights on the outskirts of Maquoketa (pop. 6000) sits the wonderfully obscure and ornately fashioned Codfish Hollow music venue.
Arriving in Maquoketa practice pronunciation while following the GPS off highway 62 North to the unassuming 35th street. Don’t be alarmed when the paved road gives out to gravel two miles later. When your GPS goes blank just follow the hand painted signs past verdant cropland through territory marked primarily by the cicadas screaming lament. You’ll doubt yourself, but shortly you’ll spot the columns of dust thrown up by like minded gentry. Arrival at the Biehl farm means you’re still not there. After parking the car, meet Marvin, a farmhand to three generations of the landowners. He’ll give you a ride in the wagon pulled behind a John Deer to the venue proper.
Codfish Hollow is like no venue you’ve ever been to. The concert hall is a converted barn built in 1954 by Arnold Stamp, grandfather to current owner Tiffany Biehl. Without benefit of wifi, road or running water Codfish Hollow is powered almost exclusively by word of mouth. The Americana Music Fest might be taking place in Nashville, but it is here you’ll find the heart and soul of the genre.
Host to a variety of specialty concerts, tonight’s show was a collaboration between Codfish Hollow and local sessions-man Sean Moeller. Moeller is something of a local celebrity, but perhaps known better nationally as the driving force behind the Horseshack, Daytrotter recording sessions. Unfamiliar with Daytrotter? Your favorite bands aren’t. The former reporter lures dozens of high-profile touring acts to his studio on the banks of the Mississippi every year. What’s more odd is these groups don’t record with Daytrotter after gigs in the Quad Cities. Rather, acts like the Lumineers, Iron and Wine, Vampire Weekend and Deer Tick come out to the studios in Rock Island specifically to record for Daytrotter, and quite often before they break.
First on the lineup for the night: Ark Life. This Denver based five piece makes both kinds of music, Country and Western spliced up with just the right amount of youthful energy and rocking licks. Guitar oriented rock of all types has been delivering diminished returns for some time now, so it’s interesting to see Ark Life’s Jesse Elliot combine the vocal emotion normally reserved for soul with a generous heaping of ‘La La La’s’ from the all female string rhythm section. There’s new life in Americana yet.
While Ark Life’s execution was spot on, the venue’s acoustics may have played a larger role in the richness of sound. The bell shaped design of the walls creates a sonic environment better known in vaulted cathedrals. But as opposed to the sound bounce mayhem reflected by stone, the barn’s porous old wood took the edge off the amplification’s bite. The audience was but a conduit, like a pick-up placed inside the hollowed body of a guitar.
Ark Life’s working-man flannel rock was the perfect fit for the near capacity, mature and not yet overly-buzzed crowd. It would be with Louisiana’s Crash the real intoxication begun. Better known as the drummer for Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros, Crash might contain all the elements necessary to become more than a side act. Freed from behind the kit Crash’s stage presence is similar to the frantic mellow drama of fellow former skins-man Father John Misty. He paces the stage interacting with the band almost as often as the audience. Utilizing the entire scope of his register Crash accentuated every rise and fall of mood with sweeping gesticulation. The group’s sound is far more blues based than psychedelic though the odd drug reference surfaced repeatedly throughout the night. The onstage antics were more than effective to incite fervor amongst the audience, never moreso than by bringing members of Ark Life back to the stage for the closeout number.
Headliner Jessica Lea Mayfield has led something a charmed career. The pretty young twenty something singer/guitarist’s first album was produced by the Black Key‘s Dan Auerbach. Since then she’s gone on to open for a litany of who’s-who national acts as well as headlining her own tours. Her brand of searching, bashful-eyed balladry has a decidedly nineties interior feel. It often seemed as if Ms. Mayfield was holding back. At every rhythm heavy crescendo one expected a vocal assault to match the music’s vigor, however the modest singer rarely peaked her own delivery. Though enjoyable, the booze sodden crowd was left running on fumes from the up-tempo mania of Crash and may not have reciprocated equal energy for the talented young Mayfield.
What doesn’t relate through this narrative is the surreal experience of a show at the Codfish Hollow grounds. Its really the best of both worlds where festival atmosphere meets club intimacy. There’s no police, price gauging or the hustle amidst throngs. There’s one stage and a capacity of about 300 people. The crowd is composed primarily of good ol’ boys, hipsters, little kids, gypsy queens, and working squares. There’s no bar, no restaurant, ballroom or theater. But between the silos and stars sits the music venue equivalent of the Enchanted Kingdom. It’s a place where ultra-modern acts converge against the pastoral ideal of a better age that never was.
It sounds incredulous. Just another example of hyping by an obscure critic, yeah? But the scene way out there in Maquoketa isn’t hipper than thou. Like anything precious, you just have to dig to find it. The Counting Crows have sold 20 million albums. They’ve played here. So has Nora Jones. Ark Life, Crash, or Jessica Lea Mayfield may not be this year’s mega-festival headliners, but you can bet your ass that they along with other Codfish Hollow performers will be in your news feed soon. You know, when everybody else catches up.