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Published: 2012/07/10
by Alex Baker

Barr Brothers, TD Ottawa Jazz Festival

Ever seen a man play a bicycle wheel like a violin? After last night, I have.

The Barr Brothers performed at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival last night, closing out the first spirited day of Jazz Fest with a show that was all over the board – high energy yet melodic, soulful and lullabye-esque, at times chaotic and at others in perfect sync. The brothers, Brad on guitar and Andrew on drums and percussion (and bike wheel), are joined by Andres Vial on bass, keyboard and various other noisemakers, and Sarah Page, playing an instrument not found on too many rock or jam stages, a stand-up classical harp.

With the haunting, ethereal tones of the harp echoing through the creative cacophony at the perfect times, the music felt airy and uplifting, even while Brad sang about making deals with the devil and the plight of a deacon’s son.

As I listened to Brad sing the slow, sultry lyrics to the Neil Young classic Don’t Let it Bring You Down, and with no bearing to the weather outside the tent, I envisioned a thunderstorm – dark, grey clouds slowly advancing and blanketing the sky, before an explosion of thunder from the drums and guitar, and petering out just as quickly like a summer deluge.

Songs like Give the Devil Back His Heart and Ooh, Belle showcase the diverse areas of inspiration contained in the Barrs’ musical oeuvre – Andrew once said the inspiration for Deacons’ Sons came to him while he was listening to the music of Sahara desert nomads and pacing the house with his guitar.

Lofty, softly clanging bells, abacus-like shakers, maracas, bicycle spokes and ghostly pedal effects showcase the diversity and range of this group, who defy categorizations like “folk” or “blues,” often containing folk, blues, rock and classical sounds in the same extended jams.

This iteration of the brothers’ musical journey, which began with a Great White-style nightclub fire in Montreal that resulted in Andrew and Brad fleeing from the club with instruments in hand, led to them meeting a woman who would become their manager and a new home base in one of Canada’s cultural hubs. For the Providence, Rhode Island duo who were formerly two-thirds of jam-rockers The Slip, this was fairly out of their comfort zone, but soon friendships with local musician Vial and Page, with whom the brothers shared a wall in their apartment, led to the band’s formation.

Perhaps it was the progressive, unconventional nature of the quartet’s musical acumen, or the nurturing atmosphere of Montreal’s music scene, but the slightly mis-nomered Barr Brothers have created a niche for themselves, touring extensively through Canada and the US at many of the major summer festivals. Their shows still have a slightly amateurish feel to them, but in a good way – it’s an unassuming feeling, built on the charming and intimate notion that these incredibly creative artists would feel just as at home around a campfire as they are in a nightclub.

It would be harder to set up that bicycle wheel around a campfire, though.

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