Brad Barr turns to face the band behind him and nods. He waits for similarly minimal responses in return, turns to the expectant audience and casually opens his fingers across the guitar strings. It’s an imperceptibly small gesture that generates little reaction from the packed crowd in this small, sweaty room, but it’s like brittle tinder to the fire, frailty, brimstone and beauty that is The Barr Brothers live. It’s just gone 9PM on July 16 and the recent weather warnings about excess heat in the UK find a home on the small stage of The Islington’s back room venue.
By the end of the first number, which includes handclap beats, spot-on harmonies and wailing harmonica, the intensity has increased several degrees from a standing start and doors are being opened to allow what slight breeze there is to circulate through the room. Brad acknowledges the warm reception and they leap into another song. What follows is an hour of music played as if it’s the last gig on Earth and The Barr Brothers are responsible for sending us into the night with the memory branded between our ears lest we forget how exhilarating a live performance can be.
Earlier, Brad sits outside the venue and shares a drink and five minutes of his time. He looks relaxed, watching the early evening London crowds make their way home from work. You wouldn’t know he arrived from Montreal the day before, or that the band has a short window of opportunity to show the UK where they’ve travelled artistically since their eponymous debut was released in 2011 – he’s cool and calm and raring to go. The debut album was pulled together to ensure they had merchandise to offer on a swing down the west coast of America supporting The Low Anthem, who hail from Brad and Andrew’s hometown, Providence, Rhode Island. Brad’s tone suggests it was rushed, but the results belie the haphazard nature of its creation.
‘Some of those tracks go back to 2008 and there’s a lot of different styles in there.’ It’s a deliberate ploy, as Brad is quick to point out, ‘Led Zeppelin III is probably my favourite album of all time; all those styles captured within one journey. Dynamically, it’s all over the place.’ The variety is mirrored in their forthcoming (October 7) release, Sleeping Operator, and in some of the songs in the Islington set, including the slow-burning new single Even The Darkness Has Arms, featured on Folk Radio UK earlier this month.
It’s their third visit to the UK. ‘The first time we played a bunch of towns; Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, somewhere else beginning with M..’ Middlesborough? ‘..yeah, Middlesborough. I think our booking agent really wanted us to see England.’ The second visit was for the End Of The Road festival, which they will play again in August this year, just prior to the album due date. ‘For me, it’s a huge gas to come and play in a different country. It’s what we do this for. I’m sure for others there are goals to achieve, but I just want us to get up on stage and have as much fun as we can.’
Formed in Montreal, Brad (guitar and vocals) and Andrew (drums, percussion, vocals and keys) are joined by Sarah Page (harp, vocals and percussion) and Andres Vial (keys, bass, vibes, percussion and vocals). Brad and Andrew moved to Canada nine years ago, initially playing in an improvisational rock band – ‘..there’s an unreleased album I’d like to go back to one day’ and arriving at their 2014 sound via influences as wide as classical and rock n’ roll. ‘Sarah listens to a lot of classical music – it’s the harp. I love straight rock n’ roll. We do try and squeeze it all into the Barr Brothers. It’s rewarding to find a way to fit it all in.’
And they do. On stage, the music starts in one direction then veers in another. We hear reverb vocals, wonderful pump-organ and offset harmonies redolent of early Pernice Bros. Rock segues into pastoral, transitions into funk, slides into blues, dallies with pop, dances with folk. And it’s intense. The sound hits you in waves, melodies within melodies, soft and hard dynamics in controlled bursts. Barr has a voice to match, at times desolate, others delightful, always precise. I’d asked Brad if the band felt Sleeping Operator represented the culmination of their artistic journey. He doesn’t miss a beat, his answer one of the more articulate analyses of the dreaded genre game we all play, ‘I’d be lying if I said we were folk, I’d be wrong if I said it was rock n’ roll, I’d be an asshole if I said it was chamber pop, or psychedelic, or Americana – it’s all of that mixed together.’
It’s an astute summary of the band. For good measure, I caught several other vibes on the night, including the rawness of Hendrix, the light and shade of Neil Young and BB King’s blues, not to mention tracks based on Yeats poetry. If that sounds like they belong in Mojo rather than on Folk Radio, their use of harp, dulcimer, pedal steel, ngoni and upright bass place any indulgent noisy bursts in context. The Barr Brothers music is very melodic, adventurous in arrangement but traditional in ethos. They belong everywhere.
It’s a vivid picture up on stage too. Brad hunches over his mic and sways with the melody; Andrew keeps the tempo changes in check with a variety of clever rhythms. Sarah’s harp is a wonder, like the upturned ribcage of some ancient whale, vertically dissecting the stage, polished, strung and tuned for the angels. I should mention the pump organ too, played with love and affection throughout by Andres and adding depth to the strung instruments; it was great to see such varied instruments being used so effectively.
By the end of the night, they have wrung almost every drop of moisture from the atmosphere, having grabbed their opportunity to impress and gone way beyond it. We spill out into the cooler evening air, glasses in hand, the thrill of seeing something special still running through our bodies. The venue is buzzing with excited conversations and the band allows themselves a smile and a chance to talk to the fans. Mission accomplished, and if Sleeping Operator is afforded the exposure it deserves, my guess is we’ll be hearing a lot more from The Barr Brothers.
Review & Interview by: Paul Woodgate
Sleeping Operator due for release on October 6th.