It’s not going to be possible to sum up The Barr Brothers in few or many words – the Montreal-based band plays with a wide variety of talented musicians on real and invented instruments, and while they often come home to an Appalachian-folk sound, they aren’t sacred about it. Last week they graced the Corona Theatre to play their three major albums, in order, on three consecutive nights, amidst many friends. Richard Reed Parry, Jesse MacCormack, and La Force each opened a show, and after night one, I regretted not having asked to review all three shows.
It doesn’t escape me how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do two things I love that complement each other so well. I love live music – everything about it, from the anticipation, the enthusiasm of the audience, the lighting and sound quality, and the choices the artist will make in the moment about what to say or how to handle an awkward moment – and I love to write. Writing is an exercise for me. It’s not perfect. It’s practice. So being a music reviewer is ideal for me. I get free tickets to shows I often would have paid to attend, and I get a deadline to produce some writing. I’m also very spoiled in that my sister, Lorie, attends a lot of these shows (you might remember her as my date for the Stars show), and knows almost everything about the Montreal music scene. This particular show was, as our friend, the poetic Amy MacLean, who joined us, pointed out, more of a double bill than an opener-and-headliner situation.
Richard Reed Parry, a member of Arcade Fire who has played extensively with The National, Islands, and Little Scream, is joined on stage by the last of these – though he introduced her as Laurel Sprengelmeyer, and not by her stage name. His set also featured Stefan Schneider, Corwin Fox and Jordy Walker. If you don’t know these names, you’ll want to get to know these hugely talented multi-instrumentalist composers and performers.
When I was doing some research into Parry, and reading about his latest album, I was a little put-off by what I deemed pretentiousness. Case in point: his latest album, “Quiet River of Dust” is being released in two volumes, the first on the autumn equinox and the second the spring equinox. On his website, it’s explained: “Parry… launch[ed] Vol. 1 in Montreal… [at] the Satosphere, with half-animated films creating a “floating world” around the performers and audience… After that, [Parry says], “I want to play interesting places it feels there is space for this. I feel not like taking it to loud places, but to quiet places. I’m very curious about who this music is going to find.” Maybe even those ghosts in the Japanese forest will hear the result of the journey they inspired.”
Then I noticed his face seemed familiar, and as I flipped through images, I realized he was a guest at a wedding I helped coordinate last summer, throughout which he and Sprengelmeyer, though they were guests, contributed a lot. They played during the ceremony, and after, they hid in the woods to play to the guests as they walked toward the barnyard reception. It was… a lot of elements in one day. And they were so nice. They were smiley, unpretentious, and self-effacing.
It makes my heart happy to know that people with immense talent can sing their own praises on their website but still be laughing at themselves on stage, and that is exactly what Parry did. He and his crew played song after song that sounded wildly different yet revealed a common thread, the sound progressing in layers before circling back. It is orchestral rock at times and experimental folk-pop at others, with wistful qualities. One song sounds like we’re underwater, and the moving lights reflect against the balcony like swimming fishes, and shine through the crowd the way they do when you’re lake-swimming on a lazy, sunny afternoon. (I was lucky enough to be standing next to Amy, who set that scene for me.)
Parry played volume 1 in full and in order, except for the insertion of a cover of “I Believe in You” by Talk Talk in honour of his friend, lead singer Mark Hollis who died the week before. Amy whispers “Jane’s Addiction” to me and I went home and burrowed into both bands, which is why you’re reading this several days after the show. I fell hard for “Finally Home”, which reminds me of Death Cab for Cutie, one of my all-time favourite bands. I hear the Beach Boys on this one, as he mentions on his site. It’s emo-Appalachian-folk-rock, ok? And it’s all my favourite songs rolled into one.
“I Was in the World (Was the World in Me?)”, he says, is about #thatfeelingwhen “you lose all sense of where the world ends and you begin.”
After Parry’s set ended, we finally looked away from the stage and noticed that the balcony was closed, which made the show feel more intimate and I do wonder if it’s intentional, especially given what Parry says himself. Who would intentionally undersell their show? Maybe these guys. When The Barr Brothers take the stage, we note that the quality of the sound is incredible, that each member of the band and the friends they’ve brought along – Elizabeth Powell of Land of Talk thickening the vocal harmonies and three members of Warhol Dervish providing the string section – has a reverence for sound.
From the opening notes of the first song, I am trying to understand what I am seeing because I don’t understand how they are making this music in front of me. I am watching Brad Barr pull what appear to be gossamer threads up toward him while simultaneously playing the harmonica. Below is a youtube video explaining what I saw and what he did to make those truly special sounds. Later I see Brad Barr playing something that looks like a mortar and pestle with a screen replacing the bottom, and other band members playing the spokes of suspended bicycle wheels.
“Cloud (For Lhasa)” is a particularly sombre moment, played for their inspiring friend, Lhasa de Sela, with whom they played their first show at the Corona, and who sadly passed away in 2010.
For most, maybe all of their songs, the audience gets a lot more than we get on the record. There are drawn out intros and solos, like Eveline Rousseau opening up “The Devil’s Harp,” for which both Powell and Brad bar actually took a seat on stage. It is sultry and otherworldly southern rock, a rhythmic song that tells a story. It’s their “Hotel California” and it’s impossible not to love it. The religious themes are a nod to the Appalachian-folk roots of their sound, but it’s totally updated, rising, thumping, electric, and uplifting – what Amy calls metal-blues.
They play every song, even the ones they usually don’t play live because it takes too long to tune for them. Brad Barr jokes about the experience of the audience, how he enjoys those moments when you get to see the singer “pretending to be engaged while multitasking.” There is no awkwardness as he leads us into the final ballad. For an encore, they come back and cover “Stairway to Heaven,” a very appropriate metal-ballad to cap off an incredible evening.
The way we click-and-stream music nowadays, it’s unlikely you listen to a band’s album in full. But this one bears repeating, and today won’t be the last time I listen to it end-to-end. Their other albums are equally worthy of a long listen, but they are so. Much. Better. Live. Go hear them hit every note. Watch them make music out of non-instruments. Watch their reverence for each other’s talent, how they feed off the energy of their own bandmates and a crowd completely taken in by their sound.
Last year, in Paris, I saw another band I love, Nada Surf, play their album Let Go in full and I had a similar feeling of fullness as I left the venue. Maybe the live show is the final bastion of the album – the place where you prove you’re not defined by your singles or what gets the most clicks but by your heart, what you lay out with your best friends in front of people who get it.
Post Script: I was really happy to see that $1 from the sale of each ticket goes to The First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, and made a donation on behalf of those of us who got to see it for free. You can find out what they do here, and donate a little or a lot more here.
P.P.S.: You can see Parry (and hopefully his friends!) at Jazz Fest, when his installation and concert will return to the SATosphere.
P.P.P.S.: I was pretty impressed that, when I went to pick up my ticket, I was given a sort of set-list that included the names and roles of the band, the added musicians for each night, and the crew. You can find it listed below.
RICHARD REED PARRY
- Gentle Pulsing Dust
- Sai No Kawara (River Of Death)
- On The Ground
- Song Of Wood
- Finally Home
- I Believe In You (cover of Talk Talk)
- I Was In The World (Was The World In Me?)
- Farewell Ceremony
THE BARR BROTHERS
- Beggar In The Morning
- Ooh, Belle
- Old Mythologies
- Give The Devil Back His Heart
- Cloud (For Lhasa)
- The Devil’s Harp
- Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying
- Deacon’s Son
- Held My Head
- Let There Be Horses
- Encore: Stairway to Heaven
BAND ON ALL DATES
Brad Barr (main vocals, guitar)
Andrew Barr (drums, percussions, back vocals)
Eveline Rousseau (harp, back vocals)
Morgan Moore (electric and upright bass, back vocals)
Brett Lanier (guitar, pedal steel)
EXTRA MUSICIANS ON 03/07/2019
Warhol Dervish (string trio)
Elizabeth Powell (back vocals)
CREW ON ALL DATES
Dan Davine (sound person)
Felix Desrochers (light person)
Hugues Simard (tour manager)
Review – Carrie-Ann Kloda
Photos – Kieron Yates