Brad Barr was just 19 when he travelled to Oregon to visit his Uncle Ted. Uncle Ted was a painter and blues musician, “ the black-sheep of the family,” and Barr looked up to him. It was in his uncle’s pile of records that Barr stumbled upon Blind Willie Johnson, some of the best in traditional American gospel and blues, and a source of awe and inspiration to Barr and his band as makers of down-to-earth, roots-inspired music.
“It’s almost like you can hear what was about to happen in rock and roll and rhythm and blues, funk and soul,” says Barr. “And it’s just him and his guitar.”
Johnson’s music has the lonesome and haunting depression-era blues sound that brings you to your knees. The Barr Brothers play it with the fire and gusto to put you back on your feet.
Their rendition of Johnson’s “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Cryin'” is a boot-stomping mix of gospel-infused blues driven by Andrew Barr’s bold and sassy percussion, Andres Vial’s sexy-smooth bass and Brad Barr’s drawling slide guitar. The song made its way onto The Barr Brothers’ self-titled debut album released this September on Secret City Records. It’s the kind of sorrow-melting, gritty blues that begs to be cranked up. If this song doesn’t get you moving, I suggest you check your pulse.
The quartet use their years of experience playing both together and with a range of other bands to make really smart and inspired music. Their album is the perfect example of how not to get stuck making predictable or genre-specific tunes. Barr talks about he and his brother’s earliest influences, ranging from Chuck Berry to Led Zeppelin and AC/DC to bebop pioneers like Max Roach and Jimmy Raney, and the Grateful Dead, with their tendency to layer genres and perform within an open framework.
“We went through a big Grateful Dead phase,” says Barr. Their understanding of the traditions of their music and knowing how to craft a real down-home, country-music-from-the-land vibe is “a great departure point for a band.”
The Barr Brothers’ songs like “Beggar in the Morning” with its sweet, meandering introduction, and “Give the Devil Back His Heart” with its multitude of personalities, are fine examples of their knack for writing traditional music with plenty of room for modern, experimental and individual touches. “We’ve just written the improvisations into the songs,” says Barr.
It’s in the ups and downs, in not always knowing what to expect, that make this album fresh and exciting. On “Deacon’s Son” the band’s harpist (yes, they have a harpist), Sarah Pagé, skillfully melds one of the world’s oldest stringed instruments with the quintessential island percussion sound of the steel drum and makes it work.
Pagé explains that she put toilet paper between the strings to dampen them and then put distortion on the harp to alter its sound. “You get a couple of different sounds there and you can’t quite ever tell what’s what,” she says. The result is a wild, Afro-beat rock fusion that puts a little hop in your step for days after the first listen.
The Barr Brothers’ homegrown approach seeps not only into their music. Their studio, a demi sous-sol Plateau location, was in its early days what Barr describes with utmost affection as “the dripping, cave, torture chamber-like room.” After a few coats of paint, construction, and a lot of love from the band it became the place where they learned how to mix and record their own music.
“That whole CD came out of a learning process,” says Barr. “This is real music made by real musicians and we really love doing it.”
The Barr Brothers’ labour of love has created quite the buzz lately. Their first release has been well received by critics, fans and music-surfers lucky enough to stumble upon it online. Some people are calling it the soundtrack to their morning cup of coffee, and others, one of the best debut albums of the year.
The Barr Brothers make music rich in tradition without losing sight of what people really need in music right now.
Check out The Barr Brothers with The Low Anthem on Oct. 18 at La Tulipe (4530 Papineau). Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the show starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, or $18 at the door.