One of the first Christmas presents that Brad and Andrew Barr received were two pairs of red boxing gloves. They set up a makeshift ring in their basement in Providence, RI and hung a bell from the water pipes. When the bell rang, it was the signifier that all rules of decent brotherly conduct were suspended for 3 minutes. It was the one time they could unleash the latent fury of being bound to each other without the threat of mom and dad coming to break it up. Anything goes. No noses were broken, no ears bitten, but by the end of each match, the impact and recoil, there was always some blood left on the floor. Within a year or so, the gloves were nothing more than nylon rags covered in ripped plastic. Brad and Andrew, in search of a new outlet, discovered rock n’ roll. It was 1983.
They taught themselves how to play, at first on cardboard boxes and home-strung imitation guitars, then on actual, zebra-striped electric guitars and drums. “Wipe Out” and “Johnny B. Goode” were among the first songs absorbed into the repertoire. With the same energy they used to attack each other with boxing gloves, they attacked the popular hits of the day and old blues songs they found in their father’s record collection. A healthy diet of classic and esoteric rock paved the way to the discoveries that lay ahead.
Skip ahead to 2004. The brothers had spent most of the previous decade criss-crossing North America, playing music with their spirited, improv-based rock trio, The Slip. That Spring, the band was playing a small club in Montreal, QC when a fire broke out in the venue. They grabbed a few guitars/drums and rushed out onto the rainy street with the rest of the concert goers. As the club’s mezzanine was swallowed by flames, Andrew offered his coat to one of the waitresses from the bar. One year later, Brad and Andrew Barr were living in Montreal. That waitress is now one of their managers.
In his first apartment in the new city, Brad shared an adjoining wall with Sarah Page, a classically trained harpist from Montreal with a propensity for the experimental. As tender and visceral as she is virtuosic, her melodies would seep through the cracks of the wall and into the music Brad was writing. From this nebulous relationship, a friendship developed and the brothers, with Sarah, began recording and performing around Montreal. Soon, their friend and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial was brought in to lend his wide array of expertise to the outfit, playing keyboards, bass, vibes, percussion, and singing. They called themselves The Barr Brothers. With Brad’s songs setting the context for the agile imaginations of the other musicians, a unique sound was born, one reliant on interwoven string arrangements, wide open spaces, and a multitude of musical traditions.
Though the boxing gloves have been long since retired, and the music, for the most part, is more refined than clobbering, there’s always room for some blood on the floor.