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(Bruce Emberley/Bruce Emberley)
(Bruce Emberley/Bruce Emberley)

Music review

Barr Brothers dig into soulful roots Add to ...

On the last song of the main set, the gentlemanly singer-guitarist Brad Barr faced the harpist Sarah Page. The two of them engaged in a gentle call-and-response, plucking their strings and feeling each other out harmonically. It was a dance of sorts, or perhaps a musical mating ritual. It wasn’t so sexual, but a fellow from the crowd bellowed for the pair to “get a room” anyway.

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Get a room. How could he not know that the Barr Brothers absolutely had a room already. It was the Great Hall, it was owned, and the loud person and the rest of us there saw a progressive folk-blues quartet dazzle it warmly with eccentric instruments, unique musicianship and a magician’s flair. The Barr Brothers, a quartet that adventures in a soulful, sometimes whimsical sort of Americana and the deepest of blues powers, had the room’s permission to carry on.

The Barr Brothers are based in Montreal. Mind you, the actual Barr brothers – Brad and drummer Andrew – are from Boston, where they work in the improv-rock trio the Slip. Rounding out the Barr Brothers and the classically-trained Page is the multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial.

The sprawling set-ender mentioned above was If You Leave Me, one of the performed songs not drawn from the band’s eponymous debut disc from a year ago. The same goes for the encore number, a ruggedly electric cover of a Robert Johnson blues, When You Got a Good Friend.

On that finale – a Jeff Beck-style freak-out in the Delta – Page didn’t play her harp. She did elsewhere, using her giant instrument as an elegant, clear texture among an array of other interesting, rootsier instruments and percussion devices. A small pump organ provided a cozy quality, and the front man played a rack-harmonica often. Fellow Montrealers Laurel Sprengelmeyer and Richard Perry from the opening act Little Scream – Perry also is a member of Arcade Fire – were brought back out to clack away at bicycle-rim spokes for a bit.

From the Barr Brothers, Beggar in the Morning was one of the concert’s better moments. A softly droning and twinkling acoustic number in the style of Lindsay Buckingham, the song offered an example of Barr’s rhythmic way with lyrics: “I take my medicine on my knees, twice a day, but lately three / It keeps the devil from my door, it makes me rich and it makes me poor.”

Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying stomped like the late Junior Kimbrough. This was the low-lit, brutish hypnotism of Mississippi hill-country blues, or what folklorists might call “social music.”

Other blues were more Malian, using the circular riffs familiar to fans of Ali Farka-Touré. A new song, possibly titled Even the Darkness Has Arms, had an Appalachian feel.

On Old Mythologies, Barr sang a line about when ponies run out of tricks, that’s when their work will have begun. Barr has tricks – the Gypsy thing where sewing thread is rubbed against his guitar strings, for one – but he and his band have so much more up their sleeves. It is an appreciation for a variety of influences, and the weaving and marshalling of them to new effect and charm. There’s always room for that.

The Barr Brothers

  • At the Great Hall
  • In Toronto on Thursday

Follow on Twitter: @BWheelerglobe

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