Sean Moeller's parents have a summer house on West Okoboji Lake, near the Iowa Rock 'n' Roll Music Association Museum. When he visited in 2008, what struck him most about the museum's collection were the 1960s concert posters—it amazed him to learn that bands like the Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five had toured his home state.
"They would play, like, seven shows in Iowa—where no shows happen anymore," he says. "It just made me wish for bands playing in small towns again."
In early 2006 Moeller cofounded the Web site Daytrotter, which brings bands to the relatively small town of Rock Island, Illinois. They record quick, informal live sessions in a studio he runs with a modest crew, and the site posts one performance a day for free download. Due in part to Daytrotter's fortuitous location—Interstate 80, a common tour route, passes through the Quad Cities—it's hosted a who's who of indie rock. Among the site's most popular downloads are sessions by Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Of Montreal, Andrew Bird, the Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, and Spoon.
Since last summer Daytrotter has also been inviting some of its favorite acts further into the boondocks for short tours of barns and similar spaces. The first Daytrotter Barnstormer was in July, the second in October. The third ran from April 27 to May 1, with a lineup assembled from all over the country: Nathaniel Rateliff from Denver, Pearly Gate Music from Seattle, Delta Spirit from Long Beach, Free Energy from Philadelphia, and Ra Ra Riot from Syracuse, New York. The shows were in Monticello, Illinois; Elkhorn, Wisconsin; and West Liberty and Maquoketa, Iowa. (There was also one at the Turner Hall Ballroom in Milwaukee, but the setting wasn't exactly in the spirit of the tour.)
The show in Monticello, about 20 miles west of Champaign, was on April 30 at the Kalyx Center for Sustainability, a red barn in the woods outside town. That afternoon members of Delta Spirit played a game of horse inside, around the barn's raggedy basketball net. One of the guys from Free Energy lounged in a hammock. The first of what would eventually be around 240 fans—predominantly in their 20s and including a fair number of University of Illinois students—began driving up a short gravel road onto the grounds, parking wherever they could. Moeller stood outside, looking happy.
"What I feel like we're proving is you can play in these places," he said. "Yeah, we're in the middle of nowhere, but these people are here."
The barn's owner, Bill Taylor, watched as musicians deposited amps, drums, and guitar cases in the middle of the floor. "It seems like there's more equipment here than there's room for people," he observed.
Tattooed, pierced, and gray-haired, Taylor is a broadcast engineer and activist who spends much of his time helping indigenous people in Central America build or upgrade radio stations. He also rents out his barn for retreats, solstice celebrations, and even the occasional antiwar rally or rave.
"When we do those rave things, those people use heavy, heavy-duty bass," he said. "There was a woman three miles away who was kept awake all night."
Rateliff and Pearly Gate Music started the Daytrotter show with quiet sets. Fans sat cross-legged on the floor, listening attentively. Others watched from the loft, feet dangling over the edge. During the changeover, Moeller marveled, "It was, like, dead quiet in here."
It didn't stay that way when Free Energy, Delta Spirit, and Ra Ra Riot played. Fans danced inches away from the bands, and the floorboards flexed as they jumped up and down. A few surreptitiously sipped beers, though the show was supposed to be dry and Daytrotter staff had warned against drinking in the barn. Meanwhile, out in the darkness of the woods, Taylor was tending a bonfire, a Kalyx Center tradition.
Delta Spirit front man Matt Vasquez threw himself into the choruses, and the whole performance crackled with energy. Afterward I overheard one of his bandmates say, "The barn brings out the punk rock."
The next Barnstormer tour will hit the road in a few months; Moeller is looking at late August or late September.