Campfire songs – Pilgrim Heights launches unique, new concert series

Attendees of the inaugural Tiny Campfire concert at Pilgrim Heights Camp and Retreat Center roasted marshmallows to a golden brown while enjoying songs from performers Brett Brinkmeyer and Chris Patterson. PHOTO BY ROBERT MAHARRY

MONTOUR – Taking inspiration from NPR’s long-running and well-known “Tiny Desk” concert series, Pilgrim Heights Camp and Retreat Center Assistant Director Sarah Story hatched an idea of her own as a way to bring a new audience to the facility located just off Highway 30 near the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel: an intimate performance setting built around a campfire.

The new “Tiny Campfire” concert series kicked off last Friday with a pair of artists accompanied by nothing but their guitars: Brett Brinkmeyer from Ames and Chris Patterson from Nevada. Each played for about 45 minutes — Brinkmeyer first, then Patterson — to a small but engaged crowd, and free hot dogs and s’more materials were provided for roasting along with chips and water.

Story explained that she and her three kids, who are 18, 20 and 22, have always enjoyed the Tiny Desk concerts, and both Des Moines and Ames have “Tiny Deck” shows that provided a template for her as she figured out how to incorporate something similar at Pilgrim Heights.

“I just think intimate is nice. The musicians kind of share more stories, and people feel a connection to them instead of if you’re in a big venue,” she said. “I just like the campfire also. Like, I’ve been coming to this camp for my whole life, and that’s always my favorite part — just sitting around in a circle under the sky, under the trees.”

While she won’t have the budget to book any marquee names right off the bat, Story was thankful that Brinkmeyer and Patterson were willing to be the guinea pigs who helped to get the Tiny Campfire series off the ground and come to a venue where the nearest town — Montour — has less than 200 residents.

“Sometimes, people are hesitant, but if you find the right people that just are doing it because they love music and community, (it’s worth it),” Story said. “(Brinkmeyer and Patterson) are really great musicians, so I’m glad they said yes.”

It seemed fitting that for the inaugural Tiny Campfire concert, Brinkmeyer was performing his first live show ever.

“I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years, but rarely in public. So this is a launching point for me too,” he said. “It’s exciting and it’s beautiful here, absolutely gorgeous. It’s serene and tranquil, which are some of the things I like to focus on in music too. It’s gonna be a nice, chill spot.”

With a smooth, soothing tenor voice and a mellow guitar picking style, Brinkmeyer kicked off his set with a cover of “Don’t Bother None,” a song from the cult anime show “Cowboy Bebop” that begins, ironically enough, with a line about reading a newspaper inside of a cafe. From there, he played several more covers, including a few by Minnesota-based singer/songwriter Peter Mayer, and even some of his own compositions.

Patterson, on the other hand, presented something of a stark contrast: unlike Brinkmeyer, he’s played in several bands over the years — currently, he’s involved with Great Caesar’s Goat — and most of his songs are about the excesses of life on the road, the guilt that comes with leaving family behind and hard lessons learned from the experience.

“I was really inspired by Austin, Texas. I got involved in that scene back around 2000 and just fell in love with the artists down there. That’s when I really decided I was gonna write,” Patterson said. “I never, ever thought I would be musically inspired. I was a sports kid, played football in college and I was in the restaurant business for 20 some years.”

In Austin, he found inspiration from musicians like Jon Dee Graham, The True Believers, Alejandro Escovedo and others who are “songwriters, but they’re rockin’.”

“I really don’t like popular music, (and) I don’t listen to the radio,” Patterson said. “I really enjoy a storied guitar in my hands with a big crowd in a small venue where it’s hot and sweaty, but I like these intimate concerts too… And the inspiration for songs just comes from life, life experiences — meeting somebody, having somebody affect you on a personal level. Sometimes I write songs and I don’t know what they’re about, but then, it might be a few months down the road, and I’m like ‘Oh, I know what this was about. Now I know.'”

The long-term goal isn’t to turn Pilgrim Heights into the next great rural concert destination and draw massive crowds, but with some publicity and several future shows already planned, Story is optimistic the audience will grow in time. Most of all, she hopes to continue to find new ways to bring people together at the facility.

“It’s hard to have a campfire if you don’t have the space. We just try to keep everything very affordable,” she said.

The upcoming slate of Tiny Campfire concerts is as follows. All shows are free unless otherwise noted.

-Sept. 29 — Prairie Creek String Band, 7 p.m.

-Sept. 30 — Danny Wolf, 7 p.m.

-Oct. 7 — Bon Jecci, 6 p.m. ($5 cover charge)

-Oct. 20 — Birdy Young, 7 p.m.

-Oct. 27 — Taylor Bear, time TBD.

To learn more about these and other upcoming events happening at the facility, visit https://www.pilgrimheights.org/