Matt Barber vs. hockey night

Matt Barber works up a sweat at The Grad Club—get a hose!
Matt Barber works up a sweat at The Grad Club—get a hose!

Concert Review: Matt Barber @ The Grad Club, Oct. 5

There is nothing remotely trendy about Matt Barber. Despite his association with bands of such indie rock caliber as Stars, Barber retains a much more organic style, holding him closer in comparison to Canadian songsmiths like Neil Young and the enduring Emm Gryner. Barber’s lyrics seem to contain simple philosophies that touch upon staple singer/songwriter themes—love, loss, and life—and are complemented by the sturdy foundation of a healthy classic rock sound. The epitome of Matthew Barber’s brooding yet unruly persona can almost be summed up by his one song, “Morning Light.” As Barber explained to the audience on the evening of Oct. 5, “Morning Light” is about three things: leaving someone important behind, hitting up the parties a little too hard, and touring the country playing music. Rivaled by the Leafs vs. Senators game on TSN, The Grad Club was relatively bare when solo performer Nich Worby hesitantly hit the stage and addressed the small audience that had gathered in anticipation of Matt Barber. Worby marched bravely and staggered slightly through his 30 minute set, armed only with an acoustic guitar and his quirky poetics. With a plaintive voice reminiscent of singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche—only a little less refined—the third-year Queen’s student sang of children’s stories. Mid-song, Worby spontaneously broke into a rendition of Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block.” Shouts floated over from the next room, where hockey fans reveled in the return of their adored game, as Worby rhythmically strummed and kept surprising the crowd with offbeat, original lyrics. As his set wore on, Worby appeared to become comfortable with being the center of attention and opened up more, although his banter remained incomprehensible for the most part.

Soon after Worby’s set ended, the hockey game also came to a close and the crowd grew steadily as more concertgoers arrived, pint in hand. Queen’s (and Grad Club) alumnus Matt Barber strolled onto the stage of his beloved Grad Club some time after 11 p.m., clutching his acoustic guitar, and belted out a haunting performance of his song “Untitled” from his first major label release, last month’s Sweet Nothing. Lamenting unrequited love, dismal weather and uncertain identity, Barber seemed to promise an evening of melancholic introspection. Which is true, in part, but not quite the whole picture. Next thing the crowd knew, Barber’s band, The Union Dues, had stormed the stage and proceeded to rock out to some older Matthew Barber material from his E.P Tilted World. The enlisted set-up of electric guitar, bass, drums and keys filled out Barber’s quasi-folk-rock-country sound, pumping up the volume and the intensity. Casually switching between electric and acoustic guitar, Barber kept the vibe energetic but intimate. During such songs as the sassy “Soft One,” the single from his most recent release, and the honourable “Make it Right,” it felt like The Union Dues could barely be contained on the small one-foot stage, as the band bobbed up and down and tore through the set elevating the expectations and energy of the crowd. At other times Barber seemed to treat The Grad Club like it was his living room, with his smooth yet rough voice rendering the audience transfixed. Standing and delivering his uncompromisingly direct musings on life: “I don’t have the answers but I don’t wanna stop / And I’m well-prepared to shout it from the highest mountain top” during the defiant “Easy to Fall,” Barber and The Union Dues hypnotically mellowed the room.

For someone who sings a great deal about sorrow—emotion running rampant through his repertoire—Barber maintained a grounded and well-composed stage presence. Subtle and charming, his voice sounded immediately familiar yet distinct, pleasing and intriguing his listeners. The quality of Barber’s live performances outdoes his recordings because Barber and The Union Dues’ playfulness on stage amplifies Barber’s seemingly simple songs.

As the evening drew to a close, Barber thanked the laid-back Grad Clubbers for making it out to his show on the hump night and introduced the members of the band, an eclectic bunch hailing from across the country. The ensemble then broke out into a climactic finale, jamming to the funky “The Plea” as Barber twisted his words to suit the campus atmosphere, wailing into the microphone: “Don’t lie to me, Prof / Don’t lie to me / I’m innocent and you’re guilty.”

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