The Barr Brothers gave everyone at Hillside 2017 a truly unique rock experience and not just because the show contained the first harp solo I have ever experienced in modern music. By the way, I mean an actual harp, not slang for harmonica. When you are watching The Barr brothers perform live it feels like you are like taking a swim in raging rapids. At first you might fight against the chaos, but very soon you start to swim towards the current and you just let the river take you wherever it wants you to go.
Hailing from Montreal, The Barr Brothers play unconventional progressive rock and roll, which is an accomplishment unto itself. Their music has aspects of everything from jazz and punk rock to classical music and the blues, but what they really draw from is the well of folk rock, which is unusual for such a dizzying style of music. Their live performance is breathtaking, tumultuous and poetic. Sometimes they seem to take what would otherwise be a conventional catchy composition and play dissonant notes over top of it. At other moments they would sync up like a metronomic hive mind and exchange riffs.
One of the other notable aspects of this group is that the drummer has a bike wheel on his kit to play in place of a ride symbol. It creates a tin like timbre similar to the rhythm section of The Violent Femmes. My favorite part of the show was actually when they paired things down and did a gorgeous four part harmony onto one microphone. The Barr Brothers take simple things and make them complex. If you need a little more entropy in your life then consider going on a ride with The Barr Brothers.
There is something about a beautiful woman and a banjo that warms the soul. Kaia Kater was one of my favorite discoveries of Hillside 2017. Drawing heavily from roots, folk and Appalachian style music, her compositions are the stuff of the solemn southern United States, although she herself is Canadian. Unfortunately I missed her main set on a larger Hillside stage, but I did manage to catch her playing a few songs at a Hillside workshop. This is actually one of the more amazing aspects of Hillside, the festival asks performers from throughout the weekend to do smaller shows on the side stages. Often the artists will collaborate on each other’s tunes, resulting in the occasional powerhouse partnership.
One of the more down to earth performers I have met, I approached Kaia before her set at said Hillside workshop. I asked her to take a few portrait shots and she agreed before even knowing my name or if I worked for anyone. When it is a random ask many people will take the time to do this only when they know they will be featured in a big newspaper. The second she started playing I knew I was a fan. Kaia was very upbeat to talk to, but her music has a melancholy emotional flair to it, she seemed drenched in stoic confidence. Kaia’s style is spellbinding yet minimalistic. She is a true up and coming gem in the roots scene. Kaia Kater is your girl if you need some more passionate folk driven banjo playing in your life.
The Blurry Pickers had already started their set and in keeping with Hillside tradition as I approached the stage I noticed there were toddlers dancing naked, and a giant bearded man with a single dreadlock grooving to the music. The Blurry Pickers requires a slight history lesson for the sake of musical context. Not everyone is necessarily aware, but Jerry Garcia had a bluegrass band with David Grisman called Old and In The Way. Not only that, but both Jerry and David were students of the great Bill Monroe, the progenitor of the bluegrass genre.
It seems that the Blurry Pickers are a living tribute to that era of Jerry’s life. They are by no means straight up bluegrass, but more a representation of The Grateful Dead and Jerry’s bluegrass days rolled into one experience. Amidst groovy originals, the crowd really got down when they covered Grateful Dead songs in bluegrass style and Old and In The Way Songs in a Dead style. Perhaps they are of the Dead Grass style invented by Vassar Clements in tribute to Jerry. Regardless The Blurry Pickers are an amazing live experience. They all seem to take turns singing and I could not help but smile for the entire time they were playing. Although everyone around me dancing like goofballs definitely lent a helping hand to my lack of inhibitions. So please do go see the Blurry pickers if you think that psychedelic bluegrass is worth your while.
Certain bands are simply part of Canadiana. The Jerry Cans or Pai Gaalaquatikkut (in Inuktitut) have carved out their role as Canadian legends in solid whalebone. The Jerry Cans are a rollicking Nunavut based band that incorporates Inuit throat singing into their captivating alt folk style. The band actually gets its name from the drummer once trying to build a drum kit out of Jerry cans. Throat singing may seem like an odd addition to a folk group, but folk singing is about the truth of your own experience and your own culture, so in a way The Jerry Cans make some of the most authentic folk music available.
This was my first time seeing The Jerry Cans live and it became obvious throughout their set that they have an extremely versatile sound all the while catering to the people within their specific cultural niche. Throat singing also adds an amazing percussive depth to their music, especially with two throat singers layered on top of the band. Occasionally they will sound like a Celtic band, at other times they sound like Nunavut’s answer to the Bare Naked Ladies, then they will blow you out the water with a sing a long song or a ripping 50’s style rockabilly tune.
The crowd was jumping along with the band for basically the entire set. Hillside really was the perfect venue for them. The people were so receptive to the rays of positivity bursting down from the stage onto them. I think my favorite moment was as I made the rounds with my camera. That is, I noticed that each member took the time to actually make eye contact with me, to make me feel special for a second in a crowd of thousands. At first I thought it was because my camera was attracting attention, but then I realized that they were doing that with anyone within range of their eye contact. The Jerry Cans really are a special group of musicians, if you love music, Canadian culture or anything in between, you should really check them out.
Photographs and article by: Gideon Greenbaum-Shinder
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