Evolution requires effort. This is The Barr Brothers fifth visit to the UK in less than a year, each time to a bigger venue, each time to a growing audience. Their brand of genre-hopping alt.folk and rock strikes the right balance between being genuinely new and exciting without losing any of the artistry the notoriously fussy UK listener is famous for expecting. Brad, Andrew, Sarah and Andres (tonight joined by Joe Grass) have gone from the petri dish to the junior swimming pool at an alarming rate; a sold out Bush Hall could see them crawling out of the primordial and never looking back.
They’ve built a reputation for laid back openings, often spending several minutes tuning and taking a collective deep breath, but at 9:20 they stride on stage and straight into their first number. In keeping with their ability to throw you off the scent, it’s a deliberately obtuse choice, mid-paced and mellow. It’s followed by Even The Darkness Has Arms, greeted like a long lost son, the graceful melody washing all the way to the back of the hall where people are already swaying to and fro in the song’s sweeping grandeur. Percussion introduces Deacon’s Son from their debut, a growing, noisy crescendo that includes the first of several masterful guitar workouts by Brad. Back to Sleeping Operator for Wolves, the ‘guilty like the sun’ refrain sung in unison by low voices throughout the crowd. It’s an arresting opening sequence; there’s more structure than previous performances and the band feels more together, working hard to ensure that the intensity of smaller rooms isn’t lost under the chandeliers of North London.
Come In The Water is powerful, simple chord sequences underlying Sarah’s superb harp. Into their stride and having dutifully engaged between songs, Brad leads into The Bear At The Window with a new poise and confidence, fully justified by the immense Lord, I Just Can’t Keep from Crying that follows. Often a centrepiece of their set, tonight it’s extended with a blistering bluesy solo that has several people around me laughing out loud and hollering their appreciation as it ends; one of many moments to savour. From this point on, The Barr Brothers own Bush Hall, finishing the night with a flurry of tracks from ..Operator.
How The Heroine Dies is beautiful, hymnal; primal music from the core –
‘If you were the shepherd, and I was the lamb
And long was the journey, and dark was the land
Who would be following, who would be free
And who would believe, that the shepherd is me?’
The one-two punch of the ethereal Static Orphans and staccato Love Ain’t Enough, until recently an opening salvo, are brilliantly familiar and the roar for Half Crazy is rewarded with a faultless display of late-60s fuzz blues, bespoke percussion and yes, that harp in a crazy unison that only they can navigate.
Who knew the traditional instrument of Gaelic clans would fit so seamlessly into a vibrant collective of smart and inventive musicians from Montreal willing to mix European structures with African rhythms? The Barr Brothers talk on their website about ‘..the rust and beauty that we seek in our music’. Grit and grace; all part of the evolution. Onward.
‘Come In The Water’ is the new single from The Barr Brothers’ recent album ‘Sleeping Operator’ (Secret City Records). The quartet return to the UK in April/May for a run of support dates with the legendary Calexico.