Recap: The Barr Brothers at World Cafe Live (December 9th, 2011)

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Live, the members of The Barr Brothers strike a balance between tried-and-true Americana and startling creativity. Their self-titled debut, which features harp-centric lullabies and also whole-hearted forays into country and blues, certainly suggests eclectic tastes and non-traditional song writing. However, the stylings of The Barr Brothers’ album merely hint at the surprises of the live show. Improvising song renditions that involved the five-person band of opening act Jocie Adams, playing an instrument invented from a roof shingle and a peanut bowl, and employing a traditional gypsy guitar technique that requires tying polyester sewing strings to Brad Barr’s guitar, The Barr Brothers ensured that there was never a predictable moment in their set.

The Barr Brothers seem to deliberately test how much experimentation in music can still sound familiar and aesthetically pleasing. The beginnings and endings of songs were indeterminable because the harp, guitar, bass and several hand-held noisemakers were tuned in such melodic fashions that it was difficult to tell if an instrument was being adjusted or played as an interlude between songs. Brad’s strings-on-strings technique was eery; the best way to describe it is the sound of a violin played under water. While that chilling sound is featured on the album, it is much more prominent in their live performance. Sara Page’s harp was also much more obvious live. For starters, it was louder in person, and the other band members adjusted their instruments around it accordingly. Towering above the band, it also dominated the stage visually. At one point, Sara and Brad had dueling solos, which created an odd image, him hunched and shredding up against a 6-foot standing harp, while she sat in perfect posture, picking at the strings with uncanny speed. Yet, it worked because, very much in the tradition of Americana, it was a surprisingly beautiful blend of ancient and modern techniques.

There is more to The Barr Brothers’ than hand-clapping percussion and a propensity to take risks on the weirder sounds that the members coax from their instruments. Song-writer Brad Barr has been in several bands, and his experienced creativity is clearly the driving force behind the group. His lyrics are insightful and simple, such as on “Old Mythologies” which begins, “It’s probably now that I need you the most, when I’m one half child and the other ghost.” His arrangement of each song demonstrates a similar sort of understated confidence. He invited a trumpet player to join the band for “The Devil’s Harp” and Jocie Adams played clarinet on several songs. At one point, Page left her harp to assist in pulling the polyester strings on Brad’s guitar, which looked, from a distance, as though she were slowing pulling the sound out of the guitar. That’s not far from the truth. Brad seemed to have explained to everyone on stage how best to pull sound from his or her own instrument. The group’s ability to cohere with Brad’s oddly appealing creativity is their greatest asset.

The show ended, as expected, with another surprise. Though a cover of Willie Johnson’s “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying,” has apparently been the encore and highlight in every other show on the tour, The Barr Brothers decided that World Cafe Live was in the mood for something mellow. The band, their free-lance trumpeter and Jocie Adam’s entire supporting band crowded onto the stage for a Von-Trapp style cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” The show ended in a chorus of voices and an odd blend of instruments—upright bass, clarinet, trumpet, and acoustic guitar—and it couldn’t have ended any other way. —Naomi Shavin

Set List:
Beggar in the Morning
Old Mythologies
Kisses for Chelsea
Deacon’s Son
Oh, Belle
The Devil’s Harp
Sara Through the Wall
Give the Devil Back His Heart
[+ three new songs that were not on the album]

Encore:
Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young Cover)

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