Review: The Barr Brothers, Boss Caine, The Lungs
Venue: City Screen Basement Bar, September 3
Once a year, twice if you’re very lucky, a gig will completely overwhelm you. I’m not talking about the ones you know will be good, your favourite established bands or singers coming to play; I’m talking about the ones where you don’t quite know what to expect – and you buy your ticket as much in hope as expectation.
The only clue on September 3 at the Basement was the recommendation from Please Please You promoter Joe Coates, who has proven a trusty guide in the past. Thanks to Joe, we’ve all heard about The Crookes, The Wave Pictures and Thomas Truax, among others.
This time it was Canadian four-piece, The Barr Brothers, supported by Boss Caine, and York newcomers The Lungs (more, much more, about them later).
After 15 gigs in just 12 days, it’s little wonder that York favourite Daniel Lucas (aka Boss Caine) looked every bit as exhausted as the mood conjured up by his bluesy world-weary songbook. But even when he’s tired out he still delivers.
When it comes to the difficult job of describing music, “downbeat” only just scratches the surface of Boss Caine. But in among all that gloom – whether he’s describing lost love, death and decay, despair in Camden Town, desolation in Victoria or a date with a bottle of strong liquor – there’s a kind-hearted optimist striving to make sense of it all.
He set the tone perfectly for what was to follow.
Billed as Americana, that over-used catch-all term for much of the best non-mainstream music around, the Barr Brothers could have been folk, blues, country, alt country, anything.
The stage set-up was, frankly, diverse, and gave conflicting clues as to what was in store. On our left, a vibraphone and lo-fi electronic keyboards, on the right, a full size concert orchestra harp that almost scraped the ceiling.
The drum set looked standard, but was that really a bicycle wheel clamped to it? Nearby, the expected guitars – and a banjo too. But one of the guitars had a long horse hair – or perhaps fishing line – dangling from its strings.
And that’s how it started, with Brad Barr fretting with his left hand as his right hand tugged and slid along the hair attached to the strings. The result was a spooky cello-like soundscape, slowly building with each instrument gradually joining, Sarah Pages on harp, Andres Vial on keyboards, and Brad’s brother Andrew on percussion – later featuring delicate work on the bike wheel!
Then Brad breathed his gentle vocal on Beggar In The Morning, the opening track from their eponymous album.
And that was it… more than an hour of consummate musicianship, lyrical invention and folk/blues-tinged songs, delivered with the assurance of a band at the top of their game.
But what did they sound like? I heard shades of The Head And The Heart, Handsome Family, Bonnie Prince Billy, touches of Okkervil River – and there was even a Blind Willie Johnson song in there too.
But they were no soft-rock pushover. Sure, they had a delicate touch but were happy to break into a full blown rock out worthy of their Canadian compatriot Neil Young.
Simply stunning – and over all too soon.
Yet for all that brilliance – and it really was – something else will linger even longer in the memory: the emergence of a great new York band, The Lungs.
It’s hard to believe that country duo Theo Mason Wood and Bonnie Milnes are just 18. For their opening set they were joined by Littlemores double bass player Kai West, an old-timer all of 21 years old.
It would be easy to be fooled by Theo’s fresh-faced looks – until he started to sing the opening number, Hedda Gabler. For beneath that youthful exterior lurks an accomplished lyricist with a dark heart and a near-baritone reminiscent of Nick Cave in his best murder ballad mood.
And when Bonnie started harmonising, even the people at the bar stopped taking. A real moment.
The six-song set included an achingly wistful cover of the Magnetic Fields’ Papa Was A Rodeo. Vocal duties kept switching between the two sets of Lungs, but when Bonnie cut loose we knew something special was happening.
At its softest, her voice was reminiscent of Karen Peris (Innocence Mission), and when she added intensity, the clarity, particularly on a song titled March, her vocal was the equal of Jenny Lewis. Yes, really, that good.
In their 30-minute set they delivered Long Way Home, an upbeat country road song that will one day make this pair a fortune when it is nicked for a car advert; and I Like It On You, a charming quirky love song duet with vocal tennis that brought to mind a young Johnny Cash and June Carter.
But this was no sugary Grand Ole Opry outing. They finished with Twenty-six Names, with the memorable opening line: “I’ve got 26 different names for you and all of them start with ‘bitch’.”
I overheard someone say they had played just a couple of gigs before this. I can’t wait for the next one. The Lungs are a breath of fresh air.
Their next outing is at Fibbers, supporting Littlemores and Bull on Friday, September 20.