There are moments during a performance at the Barns of Wolf Trap when it feels as if you were listening to the music through headphones. The sound is clear and bright, warm and resilient, and it uncannily diminishes the distance between you and the performer, even when you’re sitting in the back of the hall.
“From the very first day I got here, I realized the theater itself was something special,” says Bob Grimes, production manager for the 350-seat Barns. “The artists, once they’ve been here and played, they describe it as playing in their living roomor playing inside an old guitar.”
It might be the antique 18th-century wood walls, the intimate confines of the narrow theater, or the state-of-the-art Harmon International sound system, but whatever it is, add to the mix Grimes himself, who spends his evenings turning tiny knobs at the Barns’ soundboard. For the past 18 years, it’s been Grimes who has added audio equipment and tinkered with effects that make the interior of the pair of vintage barnsmoved from upstate New York and restored on the Wolf Trap grounds 20 years agosound more like a pristine digital recording studio than an analog music hall, without processing out the warmth of the music.
Grimes, who went to Langley High School in McLean, Va., came to Wolf Trap in 1983, after post-University of Virginia stints at the Folger Theatre’s scene shop and Arena Stage. “I had the luxury of sort of growing with the venue,” says Grimes, 45. “We had two speakers, three microphones, and a little four-channel mixer when I first got here….I embarked on a program to add to the system as I could.”
In the early days, the Barns booked a few folk acts, chamber ensembles, and an occasional movie. Audiences sometimes numbered fewer than 20. At that time, there wasn’t much funding for acquiring equipment, because most of Wolf Trap’s resources were going toward rebuilding the 6,866-seat Filene Center, which had burned to the ground in 1982.
“We’ve built up the sound system over the years by getting one or two items a year and spending money on really high-quality stuff,” says Grimes. “It’s like a puzzle: Do we get speakers this year or microphones? We were fortunate that as the years progressed, as the groups got bigger and bigger, that the sound system got bigger and bigger.
“Tom Chapin, in the early ’80s, was one of the first pop names we brought in [that challenged the system],” Grimes says. “John McCutcheon and Trapezoid, as they were changing their sound and adding instruments, we were able to change, too.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone that compares to him,” says David Triano, a founding member of Richmond, Va.’s, Fighting Gravity, which recorded its new CD, Under the Radar, last year during a show at the Barns. Grimes is credited as a producer, his first such gig. “With the CD, we just wanted to duplicate what it sounded like in the room that night, and Bob got it. It’s one of our better-received CDs.”
“Going back to the Barns each year,” Triano continues, “you just hope Bob’s still there.”
These daysafter 2,000 performances, by Grimes’ count (including daytime programs, usually for school groups)the Barns is considered the jewel in the Wolf Trap crown, regularly selling out 105 shows from October to May with a schedule that includes established artists in a number of genres. “Doc Watson, Dave Mason, Richie Havens, Leon Redbone, Ray Davies of the Kinksthey’re all sort of idols,” Grimes says, “and they’ve been here at the Barns.” Buzz McClain