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Published: 2011/06/15
by Steve Brienza

The Barr Brothers, Littlefield, Brooklyn, NY – 6/8

When you can’t seem to play a wrong note, why stop playing… right? That seems to be the philosophy driving Andrew and Brad Barr’s insatiable appetite for making some of the most original music around for over a decade now. In yet one more unique format the brothers took to the stage at Littlefield in Brooklyn in support of their recently released self-titled album: The Barr Brothers. Joined by Sarah Page on the harp (no, not the blues harp but the medieval stringed harp) and the very talented multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial playing bass, pump organ, xylophone and drums at times, The Barr Brothers provided the audience with a rich palette of sounds throughout the night.

Following a brief groove on the xylophone courtesy of Andres, Brad strummed and picked some very discordant chords and notes on his new guitar made from an old tool box. Having seen Brad and Andrew incorporate some ingenious and ridiculous instruments into their sets in the past, the guitar was not a surprise. That being said, the guitar’s tone came off with an undeniable metallic sound that probably wouldn’t fit into every song, which is why Brad came equipped with four guitars for the night. At the end of the opening song, Andrew left his familiar spot at the kit and switched with Andres at the pump organ. Still using the toolbox guitar, Brad began a soft rolling finger picking pattern as Andrew kept time with a very interesting hand clapping technique. All the while Sarah wove the beautiful melody together on the harp. The song “Old Mythologies” took shape and one last clap signaled Andres to come in gently on the drums. Anyone who has followed Andrew and Brad know that the songwriting and Brad’s vocal delivery has steadily improved throughout the years and in the newer tune “Kisses from Chelsea”, that couldn’t be more evident. The song has a very soft feel and featured a flowing pattern plucked on the harp that lent itself perfectly to the harmony as all four members gently sang at times. As the song ended, Brad’s then distorted guitar contrasted with the tune’s softness as it faded out.

With a tribal spirit and a guitar line reminiscent of the late Ali Farka Toure, “Deacon’s Son” got bodies moving and heads swaying. Throughout the song each artist played different rhythms, and although it could seem chaotic, it all combined into a truly infectious groove. Drumming on what appeared to be a metal propane tank fashioned into a Peruvian tongue drum, Andrew fed Brad with the off-time beats that sent him into a frenzy, tearing it up all over the fret board. For the first time of the night Sarah really showcased what she could do on the harp, playing some intense riffs in lieu of providing soft background support. With the harp hooked up to a pedal, she expanded the range and destroyed what traditional harpists would consider acceptable. “Beggar in the Morning” displayed the band’s inventiveness as all sorts of odd musical techniques were employed. Creating a very airy start, Andrew played a pattern on a small hammered dulcimer as Brad messed around with his guitar. Attached to one of his guitar strings was a long piece of thick sewing string. Instead of strumming or picking the guitar, Brad would pull the sewing string away from the body of the guitar, creating small vibrations as it was attached to his guitar string. With the volume turned up and effects pedals doing their thing, Brad looped the sound. Next he grabbed a tape player with prerecorded noises and held it up to the sound hole of his guitar, again looping that as well. After flipping the tape over he finally looped an incoherent conversation that was also prerecorded. Eventually, the words “he’s real” emerged, over and over. Accompanied by the looping sounds, Brad strummed a pattern while playing the harmonica and soon the rest of the band joined in.

“If You Leave Me I’m Coming with You,” another fairly new tune, featured Brad finger picking a pattern that was reminiscent of bluegrass, classical and Hawaiian music—a very distinctive hybrid. With a nice bouncing drum beat and very minimalist bass lines, half way through, the tune suddenly stopped and went into a duel between Brad on guitar and Sarah on harp. Finishing one another’s riffs and mimicking each other, you could see how much fun the band was having on stage. At one point, Brad walked over to the harp pressing his guitar against the wooden post while playing some leads, effectively turning the harp into his slide. The dirty blues cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’” drew plenty of whistling and “yeahs!” from the crowd. For this number Sarah stepped away from the harp and drummed an upside down cymbal set on an empty drum case. Andres was as reliable as ever on the bass. Brad put his slide to good use while simultaneously voicing what he played on the guitar, one of his quintessential techniques.

Featuring Andrew playing what was called a “manjo” or “peanolin” (a mandolin/banjo mix made out of a peanut bowl), the band gathered around a single microphone like in the old time bluegrass tradition for a new song inspired by the manjo itself. For the song, Brad and Sarah played soft acoustic guitar while Andres was on pump organ. The highlight of the song was a brief manjo solo by Andrew that even drew a “nice man” comment from Brad. On the next song Brad summoned the help of random audience members to help him pull off something that he said had failed on all previous attempts. Using a Danelectro guitar specially rigged with sewing string attached to all six guitar strings, Brad handed a string to each participant. Also calling up past collaborator Sonya Kitchell to sing, the rest of the band and Sonya gathered around a single mic and the song began. As each participant began manipulating the string they were given, Brad formed chords with his fretting hand essentially letting the select audience members “play” his guitar for him. The overall feeling of the song was that of a prayer or hymn with the mantra-like lyric “please let me let it go” repeated by everyone in the band. To close the song, Brad took a pair of scissors and cut the sewing string off each guitar string one at a time forming a walk up as each note popped.

After a few measures of Andrew pounding on the floor tom, Sarah joined in with a drone-like rhythm played on the harp. “Give the Devil Back His Heart” emerged as Brad began to play a circular riff with a bluesy trance feel. Andrew is a very accomplished, in demand drummer in the scene and his performance during this song exemplified why. Playing a polyrhythm with the hi-hat, bass drum and two hand shakers, he gave the song depth and texture. Then suddenly and seamlessly, he changed it up as the squealing of Brad’s harmonica signaled the transition into a breakdown section. The song structure repeated itself and after a typical mad man run by Brad, it just ended. The ethereal sound of “Cloud (for Lhasa)” gave the feeling of being in a movie with the camera slowly pulling up off the ground into the sky and beyond. Andrew used a violin bow to play the edge of the xylophone. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to isolate the sound from the harp and the pump organ. Moving back to the drum set, Andrew took out his wire brushes and played a soft, swaying beat but it didn’t take long for things to pick up a bit. With a few heavy one off strums, Brad interjected with a short solo using his whammy bar and volume pedal to create an echo effect just before reverting back to the original theme to bring the song home. Giving thanks to the crowd for attending, the band took a gracious bow and headed off the stage but it didn’t take long for encore number one to start.

Choosing to go light on the encores, the group chose “Alta Falls” and “Ooh, Belle.” “Alta Falls” is as soft and sweet as they come with a slow chord progression backing a well-sung song full of great imagery. No one really took the lead or stood out too much and as a result there was plenty of space for the listener to really sit back and take it all in. Sonya Kitchell was called to the stage once more to provide vocal support on “Ooh Belle” and although she really does have a beautiful voice with an impressive range, it didn’t seem that she was prepared for the tune. However, she did catch on to the chorus lines quickly and provided a nice additional layer of sound to the mix.

Ending the night on a slower tune can often times leave you wanting one more heavy punch, but there certainly was not an upset person in the house. The set list covered all the bases and as usual the brothers continued to push the envelope, be creative and play a range of songs that makes it impossible to categorize them in any way other than as a group of stellar musicians.

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