I was already claimed by the song that I heard…

There are few things better (and here I’m including fine wine, suitcases of cash and the love and respect of your fellow man) than a chum unexpectedly telling you he has a ticket for a gig with your name on it.

Yee-haw!

And thus was a humdrum Thursday transformed into something just a little bit special when my mate Adam texted me the news that a ticket for previously unknown-to-me act the Barr Brothers did indeed literally have my name written on it (in a metaphorical sense).

At Thekla too… a blessed and fortunate man, for sure.

The Barr Brothers, Thekla

I’d heard of the Barr Brothers without actually being moved to search them out at any point. And I probably did have time to do a bit of pre-gig research but, in the spirit of the day, I spurned the opportunity and took the DExEu line, breezing into the hall without notes, grinning stupidly at other punters as they struggled beneath the weight of their prep. This approach continues to work well for many but has also served me well in the past – the Lemon Twigs and Meilyr Jones spring to mind. Expectation levels were moving towards unrealistically high levels.

Thekla has apparently had something of a refurb recently, and the old tub was indeed looking grand, resplendent in a fresh coat of black paint, pipework looking ever more random, the floor triumphantly unstickied. I love Thekla, unfeasibly and with some heart (the head says “Fleece” but the heart, well, it wants what it wants); and it’s always gratifying when a band (usually American) is also a little bit giddy at the prospect of playing on a… you know … boat.

The little thinking I had done about the evening had me envisioning the Barr Brothers as some sort of goodtime bluegrass boys – beards, booze and banjos – but now I’ve done a little googling, I see little could be further from the truth. Brad and Andrew Barr are proper brothers and are in fact Montreal-based. No banjos, no beards, a mug of coffee, as it turned out. Brad writes and leads the songs, Andrew provides light and wristy accompaniment on drums. A bassist and a deliciously skilful pedal steel guitarist join them on stage, plus today a two-man brass section, but the third member of the band is actually harpist Sarah Pagé who apparently no longer tours (which was a shame) but is still active in the songwriting and recording.

Opening songs were strong and a little rough around the edges with some wonderful keening touches from that pedal steel player (Brett Lanier, as you’re asking – he was great, although on a tight leash most of the time – once or twice I thought he was on the point of going off all Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but regrettably kept his discipline). A good few of the songs featured some tough old Jason Molina-style break-outs on guitar from Brad Barr which became full-on howling feature points (all of it accompanied by furious eyebrow work). He also did this weird thing with loose strings on his guitar, conjuring them high and coaxing odd layers of sound from them like a Theremin – I’d not seen anything like it before – and by the end there was some backward guitar looping too (go figure…).

Barring a lengthy blues work out that overstayed its welcome at the two-minute mark, the rest of the set was by turns tight and sloppy, blunt and incisive, and buzzed with a zesty melancholy. It was really very good and I felt moved in a feckless act of heady flamboyance to buy both the CDs available at the merch stall (their 2nd and 3rd records, Sleeping Operator and Queens of the Breakers). I may still grow to love them but right now they sound a little over-produced and currently have been tossed carelessly on the back seat of the car, some Somali goofiness having usurped their place in the stereo (I probably need to sort this).

The live recordings, though, are much harsher and all the better for it, I reckon.

These were my favourites:

Look Before It Changes (some gorgeous Midlake-style electronics from Lanier here)

Come in the Water (apologies for the yelping ninny in the audience who “joins in” whilst Barr does his own nifty wah-wah pedal work)

Song That I Heard

A lovely night, all the better for its unexpectedness…

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