|Photo: Jim Bennett|
It was impossible to withstand memorization while watching the Barr Brothers Wednesday night at Hotel Café in Los Angeles, where they played the first show on their spring 2012 tour for a captivated audience. With very few words, the Montreal-based group took the stage and dreamily engrossed themselves in creating the aurally stimulating opening bars of “Beggar in the Morning.” The simple, tender harmony of the song, and the honesty of the lyrics, can make it easy to overlook the multiple layers of eclectic instrumentals in this haunting piece of music. Standing in front of the foursome, though, and watching as they weave a number of subtle but indispensable musical moments together to create this unique song, it is striking the extent to which they are able to visually stun the audience.
Guitarist Brad Barr creates a chilling vibration with his guitar as he pulls strands of thread tied to his guitar strings through his fingers, an action that elicits a few seconds of shared surprise in the audience followed by awed smiles. He drops the thread and plays a tape recording on (what looks like) an old Walkman into the pickup on his acoustic guitar, adding a somewhat dark dimension to “Beggar.”
Meanwhile, harpist Sarah Pagé and percussionist Andrew Barr pick up bows, adding yet another layer of depth. As Sarah takes her bow to her harp strings, Andrew puts the bow first to his ride cymbal, then to a rarely seen water-phone, creating an eerie vibe of transcendence. Andres Vial is hunched over his keyboard, eyes closed in reverence for what he and his band-mates are doing on stage, as Brad begins to strum his guitar and blow into the harmonica around his neck, and the audiences’ attention shifts again as the ambient swells become a fully-formed song before their eyes.
The four of them are all clearly working hard as they shift instruments and draw on a multitude of musical influences, but they play with such grace that it appears absolutely effortless. There’s a fair bit of gypsy magic happening on stage, that’s undeniable, and this is only the first song in the set.
“Old Mythologies” follows shortly after, opening with Sarah’s ethereal harp accompanying some movement on the stage as Andres and Andrew switch places. Their movements seem perfectly timed as the moment they arrive they seamlessly begin creating an understated percussion using only their bodies; Andres is beating his thighs and Andrew is clapping in such a way that it appears he is trying to start a fire, smiling as if he knows how hypnotizing this is to behold. He then takes a break from clapping to quietly join his brother on vocals. The result is a pure and focused tune where the poetry of the lyrics and the beauty of the vocal harmony bring immediate relevance to the line in the chorus, “you wanted the song to rescue us;” this song certainly has that sort of power.
The soulful “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying” really amps up the energy in the set. As Brad gets electric with a guitar slide and plenty of reverb, Sarah comes around from behind her harp and sets up a cymbal sandwich atop an instrument case. She tops this with a roped cluster of jingle bells and begins rhythmically pounding it alongside Andrew’s percussive manipulation of his own arsenal of instruments (including two tambourines looped around his ankle). Add to this Andres’ thumping bass and Brad’s strained, bluesy vocals and members of the audience just couldn’t resist slapping their knees and thighs.
As the show progresses, the Barr Brothers enchant the audience with their whimsical exploration of unique instruments and sounds, charm us with their obvious genuine appreciation for each other as people and musicians, and make us laugh with their stage banter. They sing together, create together, and even play each others instruments. There is musical brilliance unfolding as the set shifts from songs that include elements of raunchy, southern grit; delta blues; delicately plucked folk riffs; inventive percussion; and an almost orchestral sound.
In a lighthearted moment toward the end of the show, Brad and Sarah have a mini guitar-on-harp duel, eliciting gigantic grins and loud laughter from the audience, and proving that, though shockingly talented, the Barr Brothers don’t take themselves too seriously. The band was magnetically engaging for the duration of their Los Angeles performance, and the audience at the intimate Hotel Café remained devoutly attentive to the very last note—hanging on, eyes wide, and hoping for more long after the stage was clear.
After just three more shows in North America, The Barr Brothers will embark on a brief European tour this month and will return to the US mid-May for another short spell of tour dates. The summer will see them in Quebec for the Montreal Jazz Festival, as well as Alberta for the Calgary Folk Festival. The entire tour schedule is as follows: