On a frigid winter’s day recently, Bowen Islander Rob Bailey packed his gear into his CRV and set off down the Coquihalla to join a band.
Bailey was headed to the Okanagan to play with Dirt Road Opera, a band founded in 2016 and featuring Cruzeros alumni Rachel Matkin, Barry Mathers and Jim Ryan.
“It’s just an amazing group of musicians. I count myself fortunate to be counted in their midst,” says Bailey. “When Rachel and Barry and Jim harmonize, it’s like Crosby, Stills, Nash – you get that chicken skin running up your back,” he says.
Elements of country and Americana with some hints of Appalachia, Bailey describes the band’s sound. “It’s just really freakin’ good songwriting.
“There’s a keen harmonic sense that you don’t get from three-chord country. And that’s coming from Jim, our bass player, who’s a pretty schooled musician.”
A reunion of sorts
In 1986, Bailey and Ryan did a national tour together, supporting American rock band Mr. Mister and the two sporadically kept in touch over the years. About a year and a half ago, Ryan floated the idea of Bailey joining up with Dirt Road Opera. So, Bailey learned the songs, packed up his CRV and picked one of the coldest winter days to drive the Coquihalla. “Right from the first couple of hours of rehearsing, we’re all looking each other going, Oh, this feels kind of special,” says Bailey.
Bailey is what they call a “utility guy,” playing keyboard, acoustic guitar, pedal steel and banjo.
Now, it’s Matkin, Mathers and Ryan’s turn to pack up their gear and head to Bowen as the group is playing a show September 11 at Tir-na-nOg theatre.
“I’m not sure if we’ll have the opportunity to play on Bowen, in a venue this small, again, if things go as planned,” says Bailey. “I think there’s going to be some European touring and hopefully some U.S. touring as soon as the border opens up.”
Return to music and live audiences
Beyond the mainland music scene (Bailey’s also in another band, Strange Advance, that had been set to do a Canadian tour just as COVID-19 shut the country down last year) Bailey’s known for his musical chops on Bowen. He’s played in a Jazz trio with Teun Schut and Buff Allen and run a recording studio here for 20 years.
Before a detour in the software industry, Bailey was a session and touring musician, playing with the likes of Queensrÿche, Alice Cooper and Jimmy Page.
“I started the software company, I just recently retired from it, and the joke I make with the band was, oh, I finally made enough money now I can afford to play music.”
“The situation for live gigs – Oh, man. It’s just awful, absolutely awful,” he says. “Back in the day, in the ’80s and early ’90s. There were at least a couple dozen venues in Vancouver that had live music six nights a week.
“You got your contract, and you showed up and did your thing, you got paid. They handled all of the advertising and everything and you just drove around and played music. It was it was fantastic. You could actually make a living at it.”
“Now, a lot of the venues have scaled back, most of them have disappeared.”
But Bailey hopes audiences are ready to come out and embrace live music again.
“There’s a feedback loop that happens and the performers feel the energy of the audience and vice versa. And when that’s really going, there’s no feeling like it, it’s just the absolute best,” he says. “And we all miss it. We didn’t realize how much we would miss it until it was taken away.”
Dirt Road Opera is playing at Tir-na-nOg at 8 p.m. September 11. Tickets are on sale for $25.