The Barr Brothers, whose studio discography reflects mastery over a diverse array of sounds and musical skills, played a live show this past Wednesday that at first teetered on the edge of cluttered.
The band struggled initially to find balanced footing in the Great American Music Hall’s particular brand of intimacy — the venue’s modest main floor, flanked on either side by rococo Corinthian pillars and dining-area-only balconies, can predicate an ambience both elegant and unassuming. But The Barr Brothers’ complexity and musical depth at times overfilled the Great American Music Hall’s unique spatial character.
Currently touring its well-received 2017 album Queens of the Breakers, the Montreal-based band has proven itself as a set of musicians skillful and versatile in a number of different stylings. The Barr Brothers’ distinct ability to employ ambient electronics, bright harp phrases, 80s rock ballad riffs and indie acoustic melodies shone through despite the show’s initial confused vibe.
The Barr Brothers opened with a version of “Cloud (for Lhasa)” that drew upon added electronic noise and drawn-out pedal guitar slides. Though slow in tempo, the song’s buildup of sound came off as abrasive and immediately made the Great American Music Hall feel too small.
“Cloud (For Lhasa)” transitioned somewhat abruptly into the title song from the band’s latest release, Queens of the Breakers. The tune, characterized by a triumphant 80s rock movie soundtrack feel, felt overdramatized and clumsy within the context of the show’s soft spatial setting.
The band’s sound remained uncontrolled through “Hideous Glorious” and would, at times, return to this initial messy noise in later songs like “Half Crazy.” But what began to drive the band toward a sound more appropriately suited for Wednesday’s venue and crowd was harpist Sarah Pagé’s lofty, rolling melodies.
Pagé was a decisive source of luminous, rhythmic energy through “Come in the Water,” a set highlight. The song slowly grew into an extended rock guitar solo from frontman Brad Barr, whose relentless shredding was deftly accompanied by sweet harp melodies and bright percussion to create a nuanced amalgam of sound. As Brad Barr dropped out of solo mode, drummer Andrew Barr drew back to a minimalist rhythmic snare clap and Pagé’s harp again became the band’s rightful centerpiece in a moment of much-needed intimacy.
“Defibrillation,” a standout from The Barr Brothers’ latest album and a highlight of Wednesday night’s set, showcased the band’s ability to unify a complex variety of musical elements — a reflection of the musical mastery that made Queens of the Breakers such a successful album. While the frontwomen of indie pop group Lucius appear as guest vocalists on the album version of “Defibrillation,” Pagé took their place on Wednesday night, dolloping valiant vocals and vibrant harp phrasings onto this instrumentally complex song. Andrew Barr’s syncopated heartbeat drumline, almost tighter and fuller than that of the album, resonated through a venue that The Barr Brothers had, at first, struggled to match in ambience.
As “Defibrillation” dropped out into rich rhythmic pounding, it was clear that The Barr Brothers had at last found a balance between the complex fullness of their sound and the intimacy of the Great American Music Hall.
In “How the Heroine Dies,” The Barr Brothers stripped their sound down to a series of pure harmonies and luscious acoustic guitar. The crowd, whose chatter typically echoed through the hall to create a base layer of conversational noise, became silent as the musicians filled the venue with warmth. In drawing away from its rock influences, and instead embracing earlier folk acoustics, the band was able to touch its audience more personally.
The Barr Brothers continued to impress in moments of drawn-back sound, reaching their pinnacle in a single-mic encore. The band left the stage following the final song of its regular set and, moments later, reappeared on a small, central balcony under the gaze of a lone spotlight. Sharing just one microphone among three vocalists and one unplugged acoustic guitar, The Barr Brothers serenaded an enraptured crowd with “Beggar in the Morning.” The set ended with the venue’s intimacy finally fully embraced and the audience’s senses fully engaged.
Contact Claralyse Palmer at [email protected].