A cold sandwich and a beer…. in…. The Twilight Zone

Somehow, no matter how many times I’ve been here or how many advertures and surprises those trips have held, there always seems to be some shock, some moment of divine cognitive dissonance on my arrival to Pendleton, Oregon. Perhaps the nearby Blue Mountains cast some benign field of energy, perhaps the town sits in the center of a sort of Bermuda Triangle here in the wilds of Eastern Oregon, and maybe it is simply that I always get here exhausted….

Pendleton’s  Rainbow Café is not, as its name would suggest, a trendy gay bar, but is, according to legend, the world’s most celebrated and notorious cowboy bar. It is also the watering hole of choice of the best goddamn redneck orchestra in the world. On my first visit there many years ago, I walked in after rehearsal to meet our four soloists who were singing Haydn’s Mass in Time of War and found them sitting bemused and a bit nervous on bar stools while two cowboys (you know, the guys in the belt buckles, skin-tight lacquered-on jeans and ten-gallon hats- real cowboys) had an actual bar fight at their feet on the floor. The fight was finally broken up by an Indian guy from “the Res” who stood about 6’5” and weighed at least 350 pounds- he picked up the two cowpokes like a couple of rowdy spaniels by their collars and carried them out the door. It was a breathtakingly funny inversion of any number of Western stereotypes.

Over the years, I’ve seen many more fights, watched a bartender (male, but it’s still a cowboy bar, not a gay bar,  they keep reminding me) do a strip tease on the bar, but also eaten and drank with orchestral players, conductors, composers and soloists from all over the world. Most newcomers get it (although nobody likes the smoke- why progressive Oregon still allows smoking in bars is beyond me), but it can be a revealing indicator of one’s latent pain-in-the-ass potential if they’re unable to enjoy the Rodeo Champions Wall or appreciate the giant buffalo head (exceptions allowed for my friends with asthma, who really can’t take it).

The beer is only tolerable- the Fat Tire on tap tends to be stale- but the food, when you can get it, is surprisingly good, including the best breakfasts in town if you like good, rustic classics. Like all good greasy spoons, the cooks tend to be a tough looking bunch, some pricklier than others, and every once in a while I find myself asking “is that a prison tattoo?” However, since rehearsal ends at about the time the kitchen closes, it pays to have a friendly rapport with all of them, and to tip generously. To their credit, even sending in some of the cuter female members of the orchestra to try to flirt their way to dinner doesn’t seem to move them as much as a humble plea and a track record for tipping.

We finished our first rehearsal for this fiercely difficult program on good time last night at 9:30 (we’re doing the 1919 Firebird Suite and the Elgar Violin Concerto). Dinner looked to be a good possibility because they don’t close the kitchen until 9:45. However, first rehearsals bring with them all manner of social faffs. Finally, we climbed into the giant pickup truck (on loan)I’m driving (yes, conductor drives monster truck while rehearsing Elgar- film at 11. Does Leonard Slatkin have this much fun?). We were chatting away about just how fantastically difficult the Elgar Violin Concerto is- all of the instrumental parts are by themselves hard to play, but the whole thing is also so flexible and vast- nearly as long as a Mahler symphony. We had a bit more time than usual to chat. I’m a pretty confident driver, but handling this behemoth on ice with frosted windows slowed us down to a crawl, so when we pulled up to the Rainbow, it was already 9:50 and I hadn’t eaten in nearly 10 hours….

On weekends, the Rainbow is usually packed ass-to-elbow with cowboys, college students, truckers and trumpet players, but on this frosty weeknight, it was like the set of Bergman dream sequence- deserted and eerily quiet…. Cheryl was already ordering drinks so Michelle (who also missed dinner) and I raced to the kitchen and began groveling. “Any chance of any sort of food tonight?” I enquired in my most supplicating tone.

“Hey, you’re back,” said the cook. “Does this mean you’re in session again?”

“Yeah… Yes, we’ve got a concert next week.”

“I see,” He continued. “You’re doing Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, it’s fantastic,” I answered.

“Isn’t that one, the Edward Elgar, really, really difficult to play?”

I guess I wasn’t expecting the fry cook at the world’s roughest, toughest, shit-kickin-est cowboy bar to be that acquainted with the performance issues of Elgar’s rarely performed fiddle concerto.

The usual roar of the jukebox had been replaced by an eerie stillness that clung to the walls of the old bar like a malevolent fog. I answered slowly, carefully….

“Yeah…. It’s pretty damn difficult.”

”That’s what I thought. We can do any kind of cold sandwiches.”

c. 2008 Kenneth Woods



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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

10 comments on “A cold sandwich and a beer…. in…. The Twilight Zone”

  1. Reid

    Plus, you have the added benefit of asking your principal bassoon player if those actually are prison tatts and what they mean.


  2. Stephen Llewellyn

    I laughed out aloud and then subscribed to your RSS feed – two of my highest compliments! I am a transplanted Englishman and on one of my very first visits to the USA I found myself in Lee Vining on the edge of the Yosemite Valley and as a red-neck bar was the only watering hole that’s where I went. It did not disappoint. Just like the Rainbow: cowboys, a fight broken up by someone who weighed at least 325 lbs (in this case the Sheriff) mediocre beer and an atmosphere you have to experience to believe. Welcome back to Pendleton!

  3. Kenneth Woods

    BTW- The cook turned out to be a real music lover of very sophisticated tastes. We’d met once before and he’d mentioned he was a music fan, but I had no idea he had such a huge collection, including 100s of classical LPs….. Lovely chap- that’s what I love about PDT…. you get a stream of cliches, then a big surprise when someone transcends your expectations.


  4. Joanna M

    Congratulations on your concert! I saw lovely photos on Facebook. I had the best damned time playing with you in May. I hope I can make it out there again soon!! (PS tell your folks I’m doing a stint as principal in Madison for the last subscription concert of the MSO – I’d love to see them there, but I don’t know how to reach them. 🙂 )

  5. Gill Davies

    Excellent blog! I’m sure you’ll appreciate the blog by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s David Chadwick on their recent tour of Holland. His experiences don’t sound dissimilar to yours!


    I’d be really grateful if you could link to the BBC SSO blog in your blogs of distinction (that is, of course, if you believe it merits that status!)

    Best wishes

    Gill Davies
    Interactive Producer, BBC SSO

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  8. Stephenie

    Loved the story of the Rainbow!
    I was doing some Google searching about it when I found this post. Too funny!!!
    I’ve often felt a little like I was in a David Lynch film at times in there myself.
    Oh, my parents own “The ‘Bow” as they fondly refer to it as.


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