Review: The Barr Brothers mesmerise Birmingham with a hypnotic set

  • The Barr Brothers enlivened The Glee Club’s stage on the evening of July 16 in a Moseley Folk presentation
  • Emma Gatrill performed her enchanting harp-centred music before the main act
  • Brad Barr’s attempts at comedy punctuated the night as he shared his “stand-up routine” in between songs

On Monday evenings most streets are quiet, but not near The Glee Club. On the 16th, there, the Montreal-based duo The Barr Brothers were busy gracing the city with their music. Seated gigs are always peculiar: so was this one. Luckily, Emma Gatrill’s otherworldly songs helped to create the appropriate atmosphere right from the minute she took to the stage. Low lights, a small crowd sitting on a few rows of chairs right in front of the Glee Club’s small, intimate stage, and Gatrill’s whispered introduction to her songs made the room shrink: the empty spaces at the sides of the stage were now filled with warmth, and with the impression of familiarity.

Emma Gatrill
Emma Gatrill

Rarely does one get to see a harp played outside of an orchestra; even more rarely does one see it incorporated in a genre that falls outside of the classical tradition. Accompanied only by her voice, Marcus Hamblett’s electric guitar, and occasional looped effects and beats, Gatrill’s explorative, ethereal, dreamy folk recalled Aldous Harding’s gothic folk and Björk’s experimental pop, rock, electronic fusion. Before playing ‘Space,’ Gatrill stopped to murmur her memories of climbing mountains in Japan, and climbing back down. Time stood still: the room was transfixed, enraptured by Gatrill’s voice and harp. ‘Skin’ soon followed, with which Gatrill concluded her set, having now arranged the scene for The Barr Brother’s arrival.

The Barr Brothers
The Barr Brothers

Paul Simon’s percussion-heavy The Rhythm of the Saints played in the background as the stage for The Barr Brothers was prepared, acting as a suitable transition between Gatrill’s angelic sounds and The Barr Brothers‘ dynamic, genre-bending rock. No fuss: Brad and Andrew Barr, accompanied live by Morgan Moore on bass and double bass and Brett Lanier on guitar and steel pedal, and occasionally by Gatrill’s harp, quickly stepped on the stage and immediately kicked off the show. A white capo on an old guitar, uncut strings on the headstock. Right from the first song the chemistry between the musicians was evident: drums, percussions, vocals and guitars responded to one another harmoniously, each valorising its own sound whilst enriching the others’.

The Barr Brothers
The Barr Brothers

More musical wizardry later, Brad Barr interrupted the live show to preform part of his “comedy routine”: he recounted when, before playing a show in Austin, Texas, as they were eating at a BBQ restaurant Willie Nelson sat a few tables away. Deciding to approach him to ask him to come to the show, Willie Nelson, after extracting a photograph of himself from his own bag for another fan, promptly requested to be put on the guest list. Once back at the venue, however, the bouncer denied him access. Startled, the brothers tried to mend the bouncer’s mistake, who instead corrected them: “That was not Willie Nelson.” Why would Willie Nelson have a picture of himself in his bag? Taking place on the same night as George Bush’s election, “It was an evening of deceit” appropriately admits Andrew Barr. The story seems to work: the whole room is in laughter, temporarily turning The Glee Club back into a comedy club.

The Barr Brothers
The Barr Brothers

Then, the following song is a surprise: it’s a live debut of a new song, yet to be released. Brad attempts to dedicate it to “The biggest Barr Brothers’ fan in the universe”, but mistakenly calls her Holly: “Holly was last year’s biggest fan” corrects him Andrew, rescuing the moment; “Brad thinks everyone in England is named Holly.” Then the song takes off, and it begins its teaching: ‘All these things that weigh on your shoulders / Really don’t weigh nothing at all.’

The Barr Brothers
The Barr Brothers

After more stand-up comedy, guitar and drum improvisation and steel pedal magic, the show reaches an end with ‘Clouds (For Lhasa)’ from their first album, the self-titled The Barr Brothers. The show is over, but it could as well not be: all the musicians soon appear again a few minutes later, ready to greet fans, friends, Hollys, and sign a few records on the spot. The Barr Brothers’ gig was a revelation: the mastery of the instruments and willingness to experiment set the bar(r) much higher for any other live show. All thirty years of experience in the industry could be heard that night – every minute was to be cherished.

Photographs by Peter Bates

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Marta Meazza

Psychedelic rock, electronic, post-punk and everything in between. Also, dogs.

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