When bands decide to play a whole album as a show, it seems to fall somewhere between extremely risky and egotistical. Don’t they know that there’s a track or two in there that just suck? What about all the other from greatest songs from the other n-albums? It’s one thing if we’re talking The Wall, or an album conceived as a totality by an iconic band that has been around for 40 years. But, well, but…
I was certainly skeptical going in to The Barr Brothers Sleeping Operator. It is a decent enough album that gets a lot of milage from the pairing of unusual instruments and thoughtful lyrics crooned by Brad Barr. But, a whole show of it? Maybe for the diehard fans, and truth be told, I wasn’t walking into this night as more than a casual one.
Well, whatever my prejudices and hemming and hawing, The Barr Brothers converted me to their banner. They not only exceeded their original album, they made it come alive anew and with purpose, an entity unto itself. This show was a blaze of splendor that burned continuously.
The opening act of Jesse Mac Cormack was notably introverted. Four long haired, denim-clad lads rocked hard together as if in their own jam space with a combo of psychedelic and navel-gazing sounds. It was the sort of music indie couples make out too, and the audience had no lack of those. Mac Cormack and his band were a bit lost amidst a stage of gear that temptingly suggested the act to follow — a harp, many many many guitars, strange bells, and a rack of items strung from a beam that included a bicycle wheel.
When the Barr Brothers came to the stage, they came in full force. In addition to Brad and Andrew Barr, there were Eveline Rousseau (harp), Morgan Moore (bass), Brett Lanier (pedal steel), Laurel Sprengelmeyer (vocals, synths), Andy King (trumpet), Adam Kinner (sax), and Eli Camilo (trombone). Even Leif Vollebekk made an appearance. Brad Barr is the face of the band, and he came on with his hair pulled back behind a headband, Karate Kid-style, with an old acoustic dangling the thread used to create the distinct vibrato in many of the songs. Then the dreamy, orchestrated harp sounds of Static Orphans began, proving to be grander and more intense live than anything on the record.
The crowd was in from that perfect first song as Laurel Sprengelmeyer came forward to provide backing vocals for a lush, full sound. And my praise goes on and on for the whole night. Was I really fearing that one or two songs would leave me flat? Fool. Each song elevated the album to orchestral levels with virtuosic and tight playing. The creativity of the songs that drew on genres from roots and folk to tropical, flamenco, and classical was delightful. Different duos and trios of singers came to the stage for some songs, including Jesse Mac Cormack, and they huddled around Brad with their faces aglow in the lights wrapped around the mike, soulful. In every song, Brad found someone to play against, and it’s hard to say who didn’t give back in equal measure. Gregoire-Rousseau plucked along on the harp as fast as Brad played. And watching the two brothers play together is just magic, knowing that at one time, they were The Slip. I think the moment that captured it most came during the song England when in the middle of a gorgeous guitar solo, a woman in the audience called out “Wow!”
The night wrapped up with a huge Pink Floyd cover of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, a song that performed by the Barr Brothers was both tribute and totally owned at the same time. And in a way, the whole night felt like that. The album Sleeping Operator is many things, but played live with the love and generosity shown that night at the Corona, it is a work of ephemeral art, precious and resounding.