Inside the Iowa barn that’s a one-of-a-kind music venue
Known for hosting live performances featuring some of the nation’s most prolific artists, Codfish Hollow can be found in rural Maquoketa, Ia.
When asking Tiffany Biehl, owner of barn-turned-music venue Codfish Hollow, what she thought of a writer following her around on the day of a sold-out show in her barn, her response comes candidly: “Can you keep up?”
Known for hosting live performances featuring some of the nation’s most prolific artists, Codfish Hollow can be found in rural Maquoketa. The barn sits on a gravel road between rolling hills, towering trees and gorgeous eastern Iowa fields.
Some would say it’s in the middle of nowhere; others could argue it’s the center of everywhere.
Biehl doesn’t host the local cover band or jam group at the 600-person capacity barn. The artists she brings in range from Grammy Award-winner Norah Jones to Counting Crows to Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and beyond. Macaulay Culkin's band, The Pizza Underground, even played the barn once.
Alongside her husband, Shawn Biehl, Tiffany Biehl’s been hosting shows at the barn she inherited from her grandfather, who built it in 1954, since 2009. This particular night’s musical offering: previous Hinterland Music Festival headliner Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. The show sold out in under two minutes.
What’s it like to turn an Iowa barn into a music venue set to host 600 people and a rock show? Tiffany Biehl took the Register along to find out.
At around 3 p.m.:Biehl, 41, spends her show afternoon helping to transform the barn compound into a full-fledged venue.
Activities include preparing the artists’ green room, checking the bar's cash registers, making sure meals are cooked for artists and crews, checking on the venue’s merchandise … and that’s just in the few hours before “doors” open (there’s no “doors” to the Codfish Hollow show area, but a tent where tickets are collected and IDs are checked).
She’s first spotted on the hill that peacefully overlooks the venue, talking with her daughter, who’s setting out games of bag toss for attendees to use later in the evening.
She greets people she knows — and even some she doesn’t — with a hug.
3:17 p.m.: Hopping into her SUV, Biehl heads back to her home, south of the barn, where she needs to gather keys to a cash register and check on dinner.
The house is located up the hill from the venue, off Codfish Hollow Road. On this day, two massive tour buses belonging to Edward Sharpe and crew were parked in the yard. Alex Ebert, the band's lead singer and songwriter, can be seen kicking around a soccer ball in the yard while a few of the band's other members are in the house, looking for a hot shower, or scattered through the yard making phone calls and enjoying the 75-and-sunny Iowa May weather. Inside the house, smells of soup drift from one room to the next.
Hospitality plays a monumental role in the Codfish Hollow experience — especially for the artists. Biehl, alongside her volunteers, cooks the artists breakfast, lunch and dinner, offers them a place to stay and even gives them keys to one of the farm’s trucks to drive back and forth from the venue to the house.
From hot food and cold beverages in the green room to multiple home-cooked meals, Biehl and her family display a dose of "Iowa nice" to the artists because, she says, it’s the least they can do.
“The bands are always surprised,” Biehl said. “If you come out here and play music for us and work all night, the least we can do is cook you good food and offer you a place to stay.”
“It’s such a short time that we’re together, but it’s so intense that when they leave, it’s like, ‘you’re now family and you will come back here,’ " she continued.
The barn attracts music lovers from across the Midwest and beyond. Later in the evening, license plates from Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri were all spotted in the parking field.
Codfish Hollow isn’t a "party" barn or a bar-like atmosphere moved to a barn setting. It’s a place where music lovers flock for a unique, live experience.
“Somebody that would just stumble into a bar because there’s a band playing and they’re just there to drink beer, or whatever — we don’t get those people out here too much,” Biehl said.
3:32 p.m.: Back at the compound, it’s time to check on the grounds. Along with providing world-class live music, concertgoers can be led down a path southwest of the main barn to an art gallery, where regional artists display works for sale during the show.
The gallery can be found in an otherwise abandoned farmhouse: Biehl’s grandfather’s childhood home.
“It’s kind of rustic,” she said.
Codfish Hollow opened in 2009 with the help of Daytrotter mastermind Sean Moeller. A Quad Cities native, Moeller used Daytrotter social media to find barns in the Midwest potentially capable of hosting shows.
“I think anybody who goes out and sees that property and sees that venue,” Moeller said, “… it kind-of overtakes you. You’re smitten. You feel like you’re in a different world. Who doesn’t want to have that surreal experience like seeing Edward Sharpe in the middle of nowhere? I think it’s a place that invites a really magical feeling.”
Codfish Hollow hosted acts like Dawes and Local Natives in its first summer. Handcrafted wood signs hang throughout the barn — a different sign for each past show. The Edward Sharpe sign, a hand with six fingers and an eye in the middle, hangs at the barn’s entrance for older showgoers to admire and younger ones to Instagram.
The barn’s rise to the forefront of Midwest music lore isn’t one that’s gone unnoticed. Nathaniel Rateliff, known for the infectious 2015 song “S.O.B.,” took to a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session saying that playing music at the heralded Colorado venue Red Rocks Amphitheater is second only to performing at Codfish Hollow. Even before that moment, indie rock tastemaker Paste Magazine called the venue a “true oasis” last summer.
These both come as high praise for the venue, but how would Biehl describe her family’s creation? She said it’s not the first time she’s gotten the question … and she still doesn’t know the answer. She settles for what people tell her most of the time: "magical."
“Everybody says ‘magical,’" she said. “I don’t really know. Even when there’s not a show going on, I love working down here. It’s almost like I can feel my grandparents down here.”
Looking back, "magical" still feels a bit like settling.
4:16 p.m.: Shawn Biehl, 42, takes a break from preparing the Codfish grounds, sitting on a picnic table outside the barn’s entrance. The Edward Sharpe soundcheck booms across the grounds as he takes a moment to reflect on the barn.
“I still don’t really know what’s going on,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just been wild, ya know? It just sort of happened. Right away, we knew how special it was. We could just feel it. So, we just wanted to keep doing it. And it just keeps getting better and better.”
In previous seasons, Codfish Hollow was doing about two shows a month during weather-permitting months, but Tiffany said some shows are just too good to pass up.
The venue brings in food trucks and local beer — including Des Moines' Exile and Davenport's Great River breweries — to serve to concertgoers. Shows are family- and volunteer-run.
“It’s really sort of grown out of itself,” Shawn said. “All these things happened like they had to.”
At around 7 p.m: If seeing a premier show in a barn in rural Iowa isn’t enough of a Midwestern experience, showgoers park in a field (which they can camp in on show nights for free) about a half-mile south of the barn — between the Biehls' home and the venue — and ride on the back of a tractor trailer to get to the venue.
Marvin Franzin, a 71-year-old who’s worked on the farm for much of his life, drives the tractor back and forth until everyone who wants a ride has one.
“I love it,” Franzin said. “All the people are great. Guaranteed. One hundred percent.”
The people riding the tractor call thanks to Franzin, calling him by name. He gets everyone into the show in time to catch the night’s opening act, Harriet, and well before Edward Sharpe takes the stage.
Music from The Way Down Wanderers, who traveled from Chicago to perform while the doors opened, fills the venue as they play in a corner of the barn while patrons fill in.
At around 8:30 p.m.: Crash Richard, a percussionist and backing vocals for Edward Sharpe, sits in the venue's green room and recalls playing Codfish Hollow with his solo band in a previous summer.
“I remember pulling up, feeling half-lost,” Richard said. “(Like) you haven’t gone far enough but (also) feeling like you went too far. And then we got here and it was amazing. We felt like we wanted to spend the entire week here. Just like today, when we pulled up in the bus, two years later … you want to move in immediately.”
He referred to the Biehl family as "patron saints of the arts." Finding such hospitality on tour — like a home-cooked meal and a warm bed — goes a long way, he said.
“It’s one thing if you see a great show,” Richard said. “But if you show up and have a real experience with the band, the people, the place … I mean, that goes so far beyond just a concert ticket and listening to a band perform well.”
Around 9 p.m: Tiffany Biehl dissolves into the crowd as the 11-piece Edward Sharpe takes to the Codfish stage.
The group, known for songs such as “Home,” “No Love Like Yours” and “40 Day Dream,” performed its mix of indie and psychedelic songs for an enthusiastic and generally mesmerized crowd.
A few songs into the set, Tiffany can be seen looking back at the merchandise table, gesturing for someone to pass up something her way. She’s next seen opening a suitcase full of glow sticks, passing the sticks around and throwing the light-up toys into the dense crowd.
This takes place during “Janglin’,” and the word "magical" comes to mind again. The group sings the chorus as glow-in-the-dark colors of orange, pink and green fly over the heads of the crowd.
The set continued as the band took requests from the crowd, playing tracks old and new. It grew cold outside, but the energy (and sheer mass of bodies) of the crowd kept things warm inside the barn.
During the seminal hit “Home,” Kat Karberg, of Illinois-based group the Driftless Sisters, was pulled from the crowd onto the stage to perform the female vocal part of the track. Karberg is one of the volunteers who lends a hand at Codfish Hollow. She helped prepare meals for the band and crew on this particular day.
The two effortlessly perform the hit single, singing “Home is wherever I’m with you” on beat with what’s heard on the record. Maybe it was the passion of the moment, maybe it was the encouragement from the crowd — maybe it was both — but she made it look rehearsed, as if she jumped out from behind a curtain every night. But, she later confirmed, it wasn’t rehearsed. And it’s just another example of the barn’s "magic."
“I made this man sausage this morning and now we’re having the time of our lives,” she bellowed to the on-lookers.
11:21 p.m.: The show wraps up and Franzin begins giving the crowd rides back to the parking field. Some will camp overnight in the fields surrounding the barn, and some won’t. It’s another night and another sold-out show in the books for Codfish Hollow.
Moving forward, what more would Tiffany Biehl want to see from her grandparents' old barn?
“I want R.E.M. here,” she said earlier in the day, laughing lightly. “I want an R.E.M. reunion in my barn.”
Catch a show at Codfish Hollow:
Address: 5013 288th Ave., Maquoketa
More information: codfishhollowbarnstormers.com
June 8: Oh Wonder
June 18: Built to Spill (sold out)
July 4: KT Tunstall
July 17: Tallest Man On Earth
July 23: Miracle Legion
July 27: Dinosaur Jr.
July 29: The Baseball Project
Aug. 14: Jenny Lewis (sold out)
Aug. 21: Kurt Vile and the Violators
Oct. 3: The Mountian Goats