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Published: 2012/03/09
by Dan Warry-Smith

The Barr Brothers, The Great Hall, Toronto, ON – 3/1

Photo by Andrew Dubinsky

Sweeping praise has blessed The Barr Brothers’ early chronicles, as the Montreal-based quartet has backed up its fantastic debut album with ever-improving live performances. An experimental brand of folk-rock, anchored by Brad Barr’s formidable songwriting talent, lent itself to a laid back vibe Thursday evening in Toronto. The mellow preeminence, punctuated on occasion with moments of oddball discord, suited The Great Hall well. The late-19th century gem of a venue took on the notion of an oversized living room as the band settled in for 90 minutes of spellbinding tunes.

A hypnotic intro set the somber tone that would permeate the first segment of the show, the scarce dynamic deftly built upon as things progressed. ‘Old Mythologies’ calmly galloped along with Andres Vial’s rhythmic knee slaps and warm harmonica from Brad. Brother Andrew Barr started out on bass, soon moving over to drum on the brilliant ‘Kisses From Chelsea’. This striking number, at first a delicate homage to doo-wop, built to a spirited climax. Tasteful lighting direction was introduced as Brad showed off his patent string bow technique, and we were in full swing.

Baring his propensity for found instruments, Brad next whipped out an old Walkman and used it as a slide. The ensuing ambient respite bled into the country-western-via-Mumbai feel of ‘Deacon’s Son’. Precisely the kind of song that has given The Barr Brothers stylistic distinction, it also spotlighted Sarah Page’s contributions on the harp. Her authoritative solo contrasted the tender plucking she had previously touted, before Brad took over for a gritty honky tonk finale. ‘Beggar In The Morning’ followed with a whimper, noticeably less diagnostic than its predecessor. Stacked up against more adventurous fare, the band’s straightforward lead single was hard pressed to stand out.

Things progressed in a less predictable manner from there, as the jam-heavy ‘Give The Devil Back His Heart’ featured a pair of guest percussionists banging away at the spokes of bicycle tires. Harkening back to their days with The Slip, the brothers stretched this one into uncharted territory – Brad menacing bluesy bursts from his axe and Andrew doing his best Keith Moon impression during the controlled chaos of the song’s peaks. The aimless tinkering became a tad tedious during another brief interlude, but ‘The Devil’s Harp’ picked things up with soulful klezmer courtesy of a guest fiddler.

“If I die tonight, then I died for you”, Brad sang in ‘Darkness Has Arms’. The stripped-down acoustic selection bounced sweetly off the worn wood of the miniature ballroom, exhibiting the group’s blend of emotion and restraint. Not yet fulfilled, Brad traded licks with Page on set-closer ‘If You Leave Me’ and poured himself into a jagged take on Robert Johnson’s ‘When You Got A Good Friend’ for the encore. The more eccentric the aim, the better in The Barr Brothers’ developing quest. Their unique inclinations hit the mark with dependable accuracy, and their accolades remain well deserved.

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