The Barr Brothers Lee's Palace, Toronto ON, March 12

The Barr Brothers Lee's Palace, Toronto ON, March 12
Photo: Jess Desaulniers-Lea
What kind of music do the Barr Brothers play? Depending on when concertgoers walked into their show at Lee's Palace last night (March 12), the answer to that question could vary quite a bit. At various times in their set, they played gritty rock n' roll, roots-y folk, traditional blues, soul and country. Sometimes it felt a bit like changing the radio dial in a pickup truck — the show offered impressive variety, but felt uncomfortably groundless, somewhat as if the Barr Brothers haven't found their home.
Chalk it up to timing. Last night's show kicked off the tour for their recent album, Sleeping Operator, and it was clear they hadn't fully refined their live set yet. There were awkward pauses between songs while the band members switched instruments, during which the crowd talked more and more loudly through the night. There were times when they picked up acoustic instruments and huddled around a mic, singing and playing quietly, and they were inaudible for the first verse while concertgoers yammered on. The band always managed to bring back everyone's attention, but the pacing was clearly off. A few quiet songs would've been welcome in a spot-on, roaring set, but here they were more like speed bumps keeping that pickup truck from cruising.
But, those songs! The skeleton of this imperfect animal was made up of absolutely amazing, well crafted, punch-in-the-gut, nuanced songs. The Barr Brothers know damn well how to write songs, and it was clear as they went through the night leaning on tracks from Sleeping Operator that the performance lagged a little because they care more about the goods than the delivery. Brad and Andrew Barr were also flanked by a group of top notch musicians, with Sarah Page a propelling force on harp and bluegrass artist Joe Grass more than ably filling things out on the pedal steel and banjo.
"Come in the Water" was an unexpected standout, as Brad dug into the soulful vocal lines with John Lennon levels of emotional intensity. "How the Heroine Dies" was devastatingly beautiful, with Brad picking through stark arpeggios and letting his vulnerability come through. The rockers, when they came, were tough and dirty, like the slide blues crawl of "Half Crazy," which sounded like it could've been a Rolling Stones outtake from 1972.
They closed the main set with their two biggest hits, "Beggar in the Morning" and "Love Ain't Enough," which saw them back in folk-rock mode and playing with a level of confidence that wasn't always there across the night. They should've opened with the latter track instead of saving it for the end — at this point, their catalogue is deep enough that they can kick thing off with a hit. That's the level the Barr Brothers are on now, and they should embrace it.