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Keene family gives Egremont barn creative incarnation: Music venue and cafe

“This is one of my favorite new venues to play. The sound and the vibe in there is something special...I can only imagine all the incredible nights yet to come." -- Aaron Comess of Spin Doctors

Egremont — It’s a Friday night in this little village and I’m in an old barn sitting at a table not but a few twirls away from an extraordinary musical act.

The cozy fireplace nook at The Barn. Photo courtesy Nick Keene
The cozy fireplace nook at The Barn. Photo courtesy Nick Keene

What is also extraordinary is how The Barn at The Egremont Village Inn came to life in its new incarnation, midwifed by the close-knit Keene family, spouses and friends, all of them using every creative trick up their sleeves to enliven this sleepy Berkshires nook.

Both family and friends have worked, or are still working or teaching performing arts in New York and the Berkshires.

Nick Keene worked as a theatre artist and designer, and managed music venues and restaurants in his younger years. He said about five years ago his family decided to pool resources to buy the historic inn complex off Route 23 that includes the barn to create both a family compound where they could surround their 83-year-old mother, Sara, a former opera singer and teacher. It was the barn that sold them.

“The universal response from the entire family was gleeful,” Keene said. His sister, Gigi Teeley, a music and voice teacher at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, nodded.

“It was scary but it felt right,” Teeley said of the entire investment.

The Barn, Keene said, was “mighty dilapidated” and it’s taken two years to get it fixed up. “The entire roof needed replacement.” That was done with wood milled in Sheffield by Will Conklin.

People would just shake their heads at the situation, Keene said. Joe Bozza, a local carpenter who had worked on The Barn, later said to Keene, “I thought you were nuts.”

The attached food truck is almost finished. Keene says the Barn will feature a simple-but-good, mostly organic and local menu. Photo: Heather Bellow
The attached food truck is almost finished. Keene says the Barn will feature a simple-but-good, mostly organic and local menu. Photo: Heather Bellow

But Keene has that handy theatre background. “I was telling people to use their imagination, just like in theatre, where you say ‘here’s fifty bucks, make it look like Rome.’”

The Barn couldn’t be lovelier. It’s got tables and comfy armchairs near the stage, a shimmery bar, and a fireplace area that feels like a living room. And soon it will have a simple, mostly local and organic menu from an attached food truck since remodeling the basement for a kitchen was going to be too expensive. Keene says The Barn will have lunch hours, too, and serve as a much-needed local “Internet cafe” and gathering place.

“We have really good [high-speed] Internet,” he said.

All this comes with great acoustics and a booking agent with a “huge contact list.” That’s Keene’s girlfriend, stand-up comedienne Jenny Rubin, who recently moved here from New York.

Last Friday, Ben Sollee and Jordon Ellis were on stage. Sollee is a charismatic, Kentucky-born singer and composer, who Teeley, wide-eyed, said had “created his own genre” with his cello and songwriting. Sollee’s Appalachian roots were evident and innovative percussionist and audio engineer Ellis gave it a real kick.

“That man is amazing,” said family matriarch Sara Keene of Sollee after his first show.

Musicians love The Barn. “This is one of my favorite new venues to play,” said Aaron Comess of Spin Doctors. “The sound and the vibe in there is something special. They really put a lot of care into it. I can only imagine all the incredible nights yet to come and I hope to be part of many of them.”

The Barn bar before the show started on a recent Friday night. Photo Heather Bellow
The Barn bar before the show started on a recent Friday night. Photo Heather Bellow

Nick Keene says the music acts are carefully curated “by group consensus” and the programming is “picking up.”

“I’m picky but open,” Rubin says. “We want a local audience and local musicians, but we’re trying to build a reputation for good art.”

There’s a regular Thursday evening open mic night that Keene says is “a cut above.” He said there are always “a few clams…but it’s been amazing.”

Family friend and musician Eric Reinhardt, who has been “integral” in the renovations, culls and coaches open mic participants with another friend, Mark Tuomenoksa. They hold a clinic the night before to “challenge” and help the performers do their best. One performer told Keene it was “changing my life and helping me grow.”

Reinhardt says The Barn has a “magic” that, along with the clinic, is helping amateur performers feel comfortable and inspired.

Then there are the popular Sunday karaoke nights. “Alcohol and karaoke — the sacred blend,” Keene said with a grin.

Summer music festivals may also be on the horizon. And Keene says the family wants to deepen the musical scene by making it a professional incubator. The setup is ideal. “We have a place where people can stay and work,” he said.

And Teeley, who is married to singer/songwriter Tom Teeley, formerly of the punk band, Metromen, says they have the expertise and equipment needed to be this incubator and record live shows. Tom Teeley was also “instrumental in renovating and designing the Barn,” Keene said.

The Barn at night. Photo courtesy Nick Keene
The Barn at night. Photo courtesy Nick Keene

The 1786-built Inn is on the Registry of Historic Places and the Barn was formerly the Robbie Burns Pub until the mid-1980s. “The history is a little shadowy,” Keene says of the Pub. “It’s hard to get the stories because people were really drunk.” But Keene says that “for a while, it was the only place for young people” and was the site of many local couples pairings. Gigi Teeley said there are still people around who fell in love here.

Buying the Inn and bringing the barn back to life is not only serving Keene’s family, he said, which includes the Teeleys’ two grown children and Keene’s teenager, but is also bringing the community together.

“Community is the only solution to many, many problems,” he said, noting that locals and the town have been very supportive and many, like local booking and press agents Seth and Sally Keyes, have volunteered time “for no other reason than support for the project.”

“It shows what is possible with creative will rather than a lot of money,” Keene said. “This is not a deep-funded project; there was risk, a concerted gamble.”

And Teeley says finding that creative will was natural for this group. “The experience of our collective theatre background has really helped us in this business,” she said, noting how unpredictable the renovation process has been.

Keene agreed. “There are a lot of similarities to show business.”

“The show must go on,” Teeley added, saying it’s the only attitude available when the going gets rough.

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