It feels a little odd to lead with the opener of any show, much less one that featured a band as excellent as the Barr Brothers. But, as the old saying goes, never bury the violin virtuoso who seamlessly creates intricately layered music by seamlessly looping himself throughout songs better than anyone you’ll ever see. The last bit’s slightly hyperbolic, I’ve only ever seen a handful of solo ‘loopers’ but Kishi Bashi does so in a way that makes you think he’s pulling off the musical equivalent of “Man on Wire” before your ears.
Looping can be a bit tedious if done slowly. It’s difficult. Performing this way is like putting together a living being (not a human but maybe a mouse or some other small critter) by skeleton, flesh, then endocrines and nerves and blood in a sequence of minutes. Or less graphically, building blocks of sound one at a time. Bashi does this at times with the speed and subtlety of a hummingbird. He slaps together loops so seamlessly you almost miss the movement between played notes and looped, he incorporates quick bursts as sudden and brief as a supernova. He does so with enviably precise technique, but warmth as well, even when deconstructing a carefully yet quickly convoked song. This is hard to appreciate on his studio recordings; check him out live, or in the absence of doing so this video of his complete performance at the Hamilton. You would not expect a voice that ranges as powerfully as his from a violinist, not an instrument who many sing so well and play, but he seems to reach into another dimension for his falsetto. And no, drugs did not contribute to the composition of that description.
Though I had first seen him last month opening for his ‘day job’, the band Of Montreal, at the 9:30 Club, I was a little surprised at how well Kishi Bashi’s music translated to the more formal atmosphere of The Hamilton. I mean this more by the excited and familiar way the crowd greeted the announcement of his (perhaps his best) song “Manchester” than in how he fit the space. After all, you sort of expect a violinist to perform in a space as classy as The Hamilton, a space reminiscent of a Vegas theater as designed by a Bethesda architect. Seeing an experimental violinist perform while simultaneously smelling steak from the next table and having a padded seat beneath my ass felt a bit sensorily dissonant but somehow I managed to deal with the absence of stale beer smell. This crowd, trending older than a typical Of Montreal crowd, appeared rapt in attention at his performance. Except during the occasional waiter visit or photographer/writer kneeling in front of them they all seemed intently focused on the stage. Even afterwards a steady stream of autograph and arm-around-the-shoulder-cause-we’re-casual-like-that picture seekers flowed towards him, which he handled with extreme patience.
The Barr Brothers made the segue from wild and crazy electric violin/vocal looping to folk rock by coming out to perform with Bashi before beginning their own set. Harpist Sarah Page joined him onstage first, and then the whole group assisted on “Bright Whites”.
The Canadian quartet inhabited both ends of the spectrum between “folk” and “rock”. An mic’d up xylophone, electric harp, what looked to be wayward horsehair pulled through Brad Barr’s guitar’s strings, and an electric bicycle wheel, amongst other off-the-beaten-path-for -rock instruments, all made appearances to fill out their sound. That wide variety of intriguing noises impressed, as did the musicianship of the band, particularly the two brothers Barr. That should be unsurprising since they cut their teeth in an improvisational band; settings like that either cultivate musical skills or self-indulgence. Thankfully they had far more of the former than the latter.
Everyone played at least two instruments well if not expertly, earning a standing ovation from the crowd and a deserved encore, “Beggar in the Morning,” the best Low Anthem song not written by Low Anthem (I mean this as the highest of compliments, Low Anthem have some of the best written folk rock songs of our generation). The band adds their standard arsenal of ornate arrangements of complementary instruments to the lush vocal and guitar melodies on this song, and it works well. If you’re betting on the next folk rock band to hit Mumford and Sons or Avett Brothers stardom these guys would be one of the favorites.