A unique music venue in the Chilliwack River Valley is closing its doors as a result of the pandemic, despite it being a successful business.
Live music from Tractorgrease has echoed through the trees that surround it for the past eight years, but after a year and a half of COVID-19 restrictions, the debt incurred was just too much, said owner Jeff Bonner.
“(Tractorgrease) has been highly successful. We were on a steady increase every year,” he said while speaking with The Progress about a week after announcing on social media that they were closing. “I never imagined a scenario where all my interests were shut down.”
He started Tractorgrease 20 years ago in a studio in downtown Chilliwack and moved it to its current location on Chilliwack Lake Road in 2013. There’s an outdoor stage, recording studio and café and they host three to four performances every week. Artists like Ridley Bent, Bill Bourne, 5440, Mother Mother and Steve Dawson have all hung out and made music at the studio.
To this day, Bonner continuously hosts sold-out shows. He said it has been “rewarding” to see it grow and morph into what it has become and the support he’s had over the years from both artists and guests has “far exceeded” his expectations.
“I built Tractorgrease by creating a community; a music and artistic family of artists and patrons,” Bonner said. “I never planned on turning it into what it is now. But, hey, I think it’s pretty cool.”
But as a live music venue, Tractorgrease was considered a non-essential business throughout the pandemic. Bonner said it was “disheartening” to have events yanked out from under him. He also lost stage rentals and live event productions (like Party in the Park).
“No events and no live music venue… how long can you keep going?” Bonner said. “It’s not like when when this happened they said ‘you’re going to be closed for two years.’ It was two weeks, two months, then four months, and the goalpost kept moving.”
An outpouring of love and support came in on Facebook following the Aug. 5 announcement, and later a fundraiser was launched.
“I’m at a loss for words. I’m sorry to hear this news,” wrote Chilliwack musician Dion Weisbrod. “I met you at one of the very first open mics when I turned 18. Ever since then Tractorgrease has been the most inspiring and encouraging places to play.”
Chilliwack resident Jared Mumford also showed his support.
“What you’ve accomplished for the arts, artists, independent music is not something that ends with Tractorgrease. The experience your artists and we as patrons have had at TG is something extremely special and will be talked about for decades to come.”
“It is a shame another live entertainment venue such as Tractorgrease has to close, especially in the Chilliwack area,” wrote Vancouver-based jazz/funk band Blues Hoodoo. “Jeff Bonner has brought us some of the very best top-notch entertainment and professional shows on the West Coast into Chilliwack.”
A GoFundMe to help keep Tractorgrease open was started on Aug. 15 by Mike Zonta of Chilliwack with a goal of raising $50,000.
“Live music venues are dwindling now. I’m not the only one that’s in this situation,” Bonner said. “It is a very niche thing. Live music venues like this, and all the ones that do exist, got hit pretty hard.”
And it’s not just Bonner who’s affected. His staff and all the musicians who rely on venues like Tractorgrease are also hurting. Throughout the pandemic, as large businesses soared, small ones like his crumbled.
“We aren’t in it together. There is no equalization between the businesses that have done exceptional (during the pandemic) and the ones that have been told ‘you can’t open because we have to keep everybody safe,’” he said. “If we are indeed in it together, I believe there should be equalization of some kind.”
He’s now trying to figure out which direction to take his business.
“Tractorgrease isn’t going away. I’ve got to keep my head up and keep positive and try to find out what I can do.”
There are several shows leading up to the final Tractorgrease performance on Sept. 5:
Dinner and music with Daniel Wesley • Thursday, Aug. 19 at 7 p.m., and again on Friday, Aug. 20 at 7 p.m.
Dinner and music with Lonesome Town Painters • Saturday, Aug. 21 at 5 p.m.
Dinner and music with Just a Season • Saturday, Aug. 21 at 8 p.m.
Laughter Grease at Tractorgrease • Friday, Aug. 27 at 8 p.m.
Open mic at Tractorgrease Cafe • Saturday, Aug. 28 at 3 p.m.
Dinner and music with Brian O’Brien and Paul Caldwell • Saturday, Sept. 4 at 5 p.m. and again at 8 p.m.
Dinner and music with WiL • Sunday, Sept. 5 at 8 p.m.
To donate to the GoFundMe, go to gofundme.com/f/save-tractorgrease-keep-the-music-alive.