A year ago – on a similar, wickedly cold night in downtown Toronto, I was happily touring the top floors of the Delta Chelsea during last year’s Folk Alliance, when I happened to luck into a “Manitoba Room” featuring a collection of artists – some I knew (Cara Luft), some I didn’t (Del Barber). Taking turns showcasing their songs, Del Barber played something called “Waitress” – which blew me away. So, as his solo show came through Hugh’s Room almost a year later (February 6, 2014), I had to be there.
Opening the show was someone who seemed an odd duck: Ridley Bent. Odd if only because of his choice of hat – which, unlike the cowboy look of his Buckles & Boots release, lent him a 50’s sitcom look, reminiscent of an odd uncle rather than anything as familiar as any singer-songwriter hailing from the Left Coast.
His first song, from the aforementioned record, did little to distinguish him with his soft voice and rudimentary accompaniment on acoustic guitar. And then he did the unthinkable – he rapped his way through the lyrics of “Smokin’ Again,” blending country to hip-hop, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Even more unthinkable – it worked! Revealing a sly sense of humour through witty lyrics and sideways smiles, Bent’s next assault was, in the form of a co-write with Dustin Bentall, called “Nine Inch Nails” – becoming one of the only songwriters I know to drop Husker Dü into a lyric. The rappy “Devil at the Crossroads” further demonstrated the Bent twist – a subtle shifting of rhythms against continuous, rolling lyrics that don’t quit. “Cry” – another co-write with Bentall – is a breakup song that picked up the energy with its “Cry Cry Cry” refrain while “Crooked and Loaded” saw him bite into his acoustic guitar with true grit. “Faded Red Hoodie” proved a funky little folk song while “Revenge” – the third song of a trilogy – proved a set highlight, as did the distinctive, hilarious “Suicidewinder” with its litany of pop culture landmarks throughout its chorus. Something different – and somebody to keep an eye on – regardless of whatever direction his somewhat eclectic music decides to take him.
Note the upgraded treatment of the noteworthy “Arlington” in video form.
As for Del Barber, there appear to be two of him. His appearance on CBC’s Q the following morning, supported by a talented band, and the musicians he records with, presented a very polished act with songs fully orchestrated and arranged into rich, full compositions. However, it’s the solo singer-songwriter who presents the strongest showing – matching ironclad songs to an energetic personality in complete control of his music. Key to the success of his shows is the degree of storytelling Barber invests into each song selection and, before long, you’re entirely sold on his personal take on life, if not the man himself. Often referred to in bios and reviews as a “winsome” figure, Barber presents a more worldly, slightly darker personality than the sweetness or innocence that term might imply. He’s been living down on the farm far longer than that – projecting, instead, a wily, youthful energy that erupts onstage with each song. At times, Barber combines strong elements of John Prine – even sounding like him on colourful, descriptive numbers like “Right Side of the Road“ and “Hen House Manifesto.“ At the same time, he’s a passionate performer with a natural gift on guitar – alternating aggressive, fingerstyle acoustic guitar with his full, country-tinged vocals. It’s a powerful combination and Barber has full command of his stage, forcing the listener to realize that this Winnipeg native is surely going somewhere with his craft.
His fourth and latest record, Prairieography, was clearly his key focus with brilliant new songs like the upbeat (with a hint o’ Prine-like humour) “Country Girl” and the gentle love song, “Peter and Jenny Lee,” rendered as a story and delivered with extreme, face-contorting commitment. The studio version may drip with the added sentiment lent by pedal steel and percussion, but Barber’s ability to render it powerfully – all by his lonesome – is a key strength. Likewise, songs like the highly personal “Big Smoke” – shaking his guitar for full tremolo effect – and the high-energy, dead-end trance of “Living With a Long Way to Go” further establish his talents. Of course, his signature “The Waitress” proved a highlight, Marge’s bittersweet toast to a sad life well-wasted. The fast flurry of lyrics comprising the country-folk of “Hen House Manifesto” with its chicken-picked guitar gave way to an encore, featuring another key song from the new record, “All That It Takes,” delivered with natural swagger. Just for good measure – for anyone not already convinced of his guitar-playing prowess – Barber tackled the ultimate master and influence with a vibrant, aggressive cover of no less than Richard Thompson and his legendary “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” doing a spectacular job of keeping his fingers from flying off the ends of his wrists – playing the classic with absolute passion and without a hint of intimidation by the lofty original. And it’s this balls-to-the-walls attitude which distinguishes the prairie-bred upstart from the typical singer-songwriter. Wearing his Winnipeg roots proudly on his sleeve, he boldly embraces the warmth of analog recording to the point of adding reverb to his most recent record by running the mix through the acoustics of an actual grain silo. Add in elaborate instrumentation and tasteful harmony vocals might show his followers what is possible, but it’s the bare-naked songs themselves – and Barber’s ability to bring them to life in the time-honoured tradition of serving them up in front of an audience of real people – that will distinguish him in the long run.
Photography: Eric Thom