Listen to this track by Montreal-based, Providence Rhode Island originated folk-rock fraternal outfit The Barr Brothers. It’s “Beggar In The Morning”, a single as taken from their 2011 self-titled record The Barr Brothers. The titular brothers Brad (guitar, voice) and Andrew (drums and percussion) had been a part of experimental rock band The Slip from the mid-nineties, but had been playing music in one form or another since 1983 when they were still children growing up in Rhode Island, with Chuck Berry and Miles Davis getting equal time on the record player as they learned their craft on their instruments.
The results of vocalist and guitarist Brad Barr’s songwriting output reflects a sense of emotional gravity and textural variety. His brother Andrew keeps the beat and add percussive accents and melodic accessory on drums and percussion. Classically-trained harpist Sara Page was added to their line-up after Brad heard her playing harp through the drywall, since she was his neighbour. with her addition to the brothers’s sound, the band was officially born. Multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial rounds out the membership, adding further nuance to the whole, which is a meditative and subtle approach to modern roots music that escapes easy comparison.
How did the brothers cover the distance between Boston, where they were based for a decade, and Montreal? It was a question of an odd and unexpected welcome they received in a city that was gaining in stature as a key cultural destination for innovative music.
One night on tour during a gig in Montreal while still with The Slip, a fire broke out in the club in which they were playing. Everyone was evacuated, band and patrons alike. The brothers stood outside in the rain, with instruments tucked under their arms and amid the modest throng of fans. All the while, the club was burning, with destruction and community held in contrast in that moment. With that moment demonstrated in such dramatic and stark relief as a key driver, The Barr Brothers was conceived. Both brothers moved to Montreal permanently.
After a period of informal writing and recording periods, the band created their first record together, with this song as lead single. Along with the experimental textures which they explored with The Slip, their brotherly project strays toward a more grounded sound, connected to a earthier although not less potent musical concoction. Their sound contains elements of acoustic country folk with a heavy seasoning of Delta blues by way of West Africa, all with an expressive and contemplative feel that seems to reach back in time, while also sounding fresh.
It’s that reach back into the mythical that seems to be the beating heart of their music, although always remembering to preserve that same warmth and human connection that reflects the conditions under which the band was conceived. “Beggar In The Morning” is full of mythical references, yet at the same time carries that down-to-earth feel. The savagery of the Maenads of Greek mythology and their patron Dionysus are alluded to and somehow given a more human shape in this song as it’s mixed in with an evocation of American Western mythology of “my belt is loose but my trigger’s tight”; a swaggering cowboy image contrasted in turn against the delicacy of the music behind it.
Above all is a sense of the journey, which is inherent in all western mythology. This song is full of the imagery of the hero’s quest which is something I can’t resist in any form. I don’t think I’m alone in that. What is more binding as a theme than a narrative form that tells the story of those who hear it as much as tells the story of those who are depicted in the tale?
These lines say it all for me, when thinking about any journey, and the universal search for connectedness common to the human experience:
I think I’ve come a long, long way
To stand before you here today
They’re yours alone, the songs I play,
To take with you or throw away
The new Barr Brothers album Sleeping Operator is out now. So is their EP Alta Falls, which offers five songs recorded at the same sessions as the full-length including my favourite, “Burn Card”. You can learn more about the new album and even preview it on Spotify right here.
You can watch the official video of their newest single “Half-Crazy” here. It’s on this cut that you can get a full appreciation of their love of Malian music and how well they’ve integrated it into their own sound.
For more information on The Barr Brothers and their new record, listen to this interview with Andrew Barr who talks about their new record, their origins as a band, some of the musicians that they’re into these days, and a defence of Canada as a place to live.
Of course, visiting thebarrbrothers.com just makes sense at this point, right?