Sunday, April 11, 2010
Show Review: The Barr Brothers & The Low Anthem - Live in Toronto at Church of the Redeemer, April 10, 2010
It only took a moment after stepping into the Church of the Redeemer to know that I was about to witness a magical evening of music. Sitting front pew center, it was the first in my life I hadn’t gravitated towards the back row in any house of worship. Supporting The Low Anthem tonight were their good friends and regular tour companions, The Barr Brothers. Consisting of Brad and Andrew Barr (founding members of The Slip/Surprise Me Mr. Davis) on guitar and drums respectively, as well as Sarah Page on harp, the group seemed quietly eager to wow the packed church with their unique progressive folk music.
From the moments the lights went down and Sarah Page started gracefully plucking her massive wooden harp, the crowd was completely silent. As the band eased into “Beggar in the Morning” Brad filled the old church with the echoes of a pre-recorded answering machine message reverberating through his guitar pickups. As he slowly pulled extra thin strings laced methodically through his guitar strings up and away from his instrument, another non-traditional texture was added to the mounting wall of sound coming from the stage. Andrew delicately brushed the cymbals of his drum kit, painting a careful backdrop for all of the group’s ambient noise to float upon. All of this was within the first few minutes of the opening number. Next came “Ooh, Belle”, a regular for The Slip, now re-worked for The Barr Brothers. The new tune, “Old Mythologies” featured Andrew Barr opting for leg slaps as his percussive device, while Brad fingerpicked his way through the most straightforward folk tune of the night.
The Barr Brothers showed off their blues chops during “Lord I just Can’t Keep From Cryin’” as Brad showcased some expert slide work while Sarah provided some additional percussion. Ironically, Brad begged us to sympathize with the devil in a church no less during “Give The Devil Back His Heart”, a sprawling gothic-blues number that saw brother Andrew playing his drums with two percussive instruments that resembled mini crutches. The group closed its set with an unreleased tune that I’ll call “Was That So Long Ago?” and it featured harmonizing falsetto lines that appeared to come with great ease. The Barr Brothers left the stage to a thunderous, standing ovation from a church that appeared to have every pew filled.
The Low Anthem was up next, supporting their fantastic album “Oh My God Charlie Darwin”, previewing their yet-to-be-titled new album and playing some traditional American folk songs. What struck me most about The Low Anthem was not the group’s comfort with virtually every antique and modern instrument imaginable (and trust me that was wildly impressive) but rather the strength and range of lead singer Ben Knox Miller. Whether it was his soaring falsetto on the standout “Charlie Darwin” or his whiskey-soaked vocals during “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around”, the sheer power of his voice was completely absorbing.The highlight of the set came after the second chorus of “This God Damn House”, as Miller instructed us to phone our neighbor on speakerphone and let the cell phones sing to each other. When the moment came, the room obliged and the whistling of our cellular devices began to circle the room before reaching the ceiling of the church. The lights went down, the band dropped their instruments and for a few mystical moments, all that could be heard was the gentle singing that sounded like it was coming from anywhere other than a Blackberry or an iPhone.
Traditional numbers such as “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?” and “Evangeline” recalled the spirit of The Band, as the group’s newest member Mat Davidson shared a striking resemblance to Rick Danko, especially with that violin in his hand. The set closed with a three song encore that included "To Ohio", a re-working of “The Horizon is a Beltway” and a new number, likely to be featured on the group’s new album.
I’ve never understood or been pulled in by the power of organized religion. Music has always been my connection to something intangible. As I looked around the beautiful old church, I couldn’t help but feel like the people surrounding me felt the same way. The Barr Brothers and The Low Anthem were able to channel something very deep on that mild, spring night in Toronto, and if music like this could be considered a religion, I'd be more than happy to take part in it once a week.
The Barr Brothers playing "Old Mythologies"