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    The Barr Brothers Gracefully Pivot at Festival d'Été Québec

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    The Barr Brothers Photo: Sébastien Dion The Barr Brothers
    Photo: Sébastien Dion

    Who's got the 10 1/2 ? I imagine Kira still does.

    But last night at the Festival d'ete de Quebec, Place d’ Youville stage, The Barr Brothers pulled a full Monty and laid the stage bare with raw improvisation and a jam flavoured performance. They were a different band then I have seen before. After a five hour drive from Ottawa to Quebec City I was disappointed that the collaboration with Bassekou Kouyate and Amy Sacko was cancelled. Presumably, they couldn't get in to the country (not really sure why). The collaboration has a back story with the two bands having a history of rehearsals. The stage was set for a showdown of Rhode Island come Montreal come Mali mash up. Only two opportunities to see this magic, a free performance in Quebec City and a Jazz fest show at the Theatre de Maisonneuve in Montreal. 

    This summer has seen slim pickings for The Barr Brothers shows, so I was fully committed to this road trip. The cancellation appeared on my phone just about an hour before we landed on the Grand Allee in Quebec. Crest fallen was my first response. Then I was determined to make the best of the situation. After all, the amazing Afro Beat band from San Paulo Brazil, Bixiga 70 was lined up for the 7:30 pm slot before the Barr Brothers 9:00 pm slot. The Barr Brothers didn't back out of the shows. Instead they soldiered on with a reworked line up and collaboration with Mamadou Koita, Sabio Sissoko and Joe Grass.

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    Cris Scabello - Bixiga 70
    Photo: Sébastien Dion

    We were all good to go it seemed.

    Quebec City is such a beautiful place to hang out, drink eat, and stroll around. A quick meal, and a couple pastries later we sauntered up to Place d' Youville and took our spot right up against the front rail, dead centre of the stage. This was minutes before Bixiga 70 were to hit the stage.... most people were sitting on the steps and around the perimeter of the square. I guess they didn't know what was about to hit. Bixiga 70 explodes with energy. Within minutes our prime real estate began to fill up with dancing feet and moving hips. Bixiga 70 was on fire again. Having only the Ottawa show to compare it too, they seem to be a solid band that feeds off the energy of Afro Beat and a latin root hybrid sound. They were bouncing back and forth with complex rhythms and driving musicianship. The five hour drive already paid off. It's not like the leading light of Brazils best offering comes up to the great white north often. They reminded everyone just how far they travelled for the Canadian dates, and later after the show they told me that next stop was London, ON. and then Europe. What started as a side project for this group of musicians is turning into a world dominating juggernaut.... they appear to be unstoppable in their ability to drive home infectious rhythms. The audience ate it up like they should. A few spirited dancers were kicking their heels up extra high, and led the conga line with a brief tour around the square. If they didn't know who Bixiga 70 were before the 80 minute set, they do now. A last bow with a giant sign saying 'Fora Temer' was held up. The politics of a corrupt Brazil was put up front and centre with the plea to support the coup d'état and 'Out with Temer'. Political unrest aside, we can only hope for future dates from this exceptional band.

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    Bixiga 70
    Photo: Jimmy Skyline

    Then came the Barr Brothers stage set up. A balafon, kamale ngoni,  a kora, and talking drum were visible. This set up clearly belonged to Mamadou Koita from Burkina Faso, and Sabio Sissoko from Senegal. And the peddle steal could only mean that the boyish faced breathtaking musician, Joe Grass was in on the kill taker. 

    Things were looking up. 

    I was going to review the original line up, but when the last minute switch happened I decided to leave the camera at home, and just chill for the night. What a mistake. There was no way not to talk about this performance. From the opening notes the tension was evident. Clearly they had decided to walk a tight rope together. When musicians as well honed as guitarist and lead singer, Brad Barr and his drummer brother Andrew set out to improvise there is a long history of water under the bridge. But this was not the three piece band of The Slip. This was a seven piece juggernaut set to circle the moon. 

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    Sarah Pagé - The Barr Brothers
    Photo: Sébastien Dion

    From the get go the trajectory was straight up. Some uncertainty was evident at first, some sound adjustments were made, and the musicians were finding their space. By the third number they had left the atmosphere. The jamming came together in an undeniable fashion. They had hit the booster rockets and everyone was on board. It was face melting. At the end of it the band was full of smiles, so wide and so bright that the full moon was blotted out. Even the super stoic Sarah Page, on harp, was smiling ear to ear. I think this was the first time I had seen her so taken with the music they were playing that she leaned forward with joy, forgetting her relative stage shyness. 

    My heart grew. 

    Maybe it was relief that this configuration of the Barr Brothers had something special to offer, but from this point on the night the music was alive with magic. So much risk. So great the reward. So unbelievable was the payoff. The band has never sounded like this. Just before Brad introduced a new song, he hinted at this revelation slyly stating that the older songs seemed new tonight as well. By the time they hit ‘Give the Devil Back his Heart’, the now packed Place d'Youville was exploding with appreciation. The newly introduced poly rhythms has paid off. The music seemed opened ended, and the possibilities limitless. Members playing on each song fluctuated with the need, but the overall dynamic remained the same. Risk and reward. The set ending song ‘Love is Enough’ had the last of the improvised transitions as Brad impulsively picked up his Fender and cued up for a surprising finish with Pink Floyd's ‘Us and Them’. The joy was evident. The crowd ecstatic. The band had hit new heights.

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