Songstress at home in Kingston

Jill Barber is blinded by the light at The Grad Club.
Jill Barber is blinded by the light at The Grad Club.
Swathed in the spotlight, Jill Barber gently croons.
Swathed in the spotlight, Jill Barber gently croons.

Concert Review: Jill Barber @ The Grad Club, Nov. 8

The living room-like atmosphere at The Grad Club had a different effect on Jill Barber on Tuesday night than it did on the opening band, The Blue Raincoats. While Barber was making the audience feel as comfortable as she was, the Raincoats didn’t seem to notice they had an audience.

“I feel very at home here,” Barber said after the show. “This is the first place I ever performed, so it’s obviously a very special place for me.”

Perhaps it was unfamiliar territory that made The Blue Raincoats’ first show in Kingston seem so introverted. Usually consisting of Keri Steele and Nina Martinez of Hush Hush fame, the Raincoats played a pared-down set, as guitar and bassist Martinez was out of commission for surgery.

The expressionless ex-Joydrop guitarist Thomas Ryder Payne, who also produced The Raincoats’ self-titled debut, replaced Martinez. With Payne alternating between rhythmic piano support and lead guitar, Steele’s vocal acrobatics took centre stage.

Playing six songs from their new album, with very little chitchat between songs, both the band and the music were driven and focused. Well into the set, at the end of the spasmodic ballad “Apple of my Eye,” Payne smiled—and the whole world smiled with him.

The Blue Raincoats are hard to box in. Steele’s voice is throaty and distinct, occasionally carrying a country twang or a jazzy sexiness.

The Raincoats’ cover of the Nancy Sinatra song “How Does That Grab You Darling?” was far more exciting than the original, with Steele’s voice alternating from whispers to shouts and from high to low notes. The best was saved for last, however, when the duo broke out “Backfire” and Steele demonstrated the most thoughtful singing so far that night. As they departed the stage, Payne gave the audience his second smile of the night, hopefully a sign that they’ll give Kingston a second chance.

Barber, on the other hand, took the stage smiling, obviously excited to be back in a city the Queen’s grad knows so well. Her hour-long set was described by one concertgoer as “poetry sung by an elegant dancer.” The narrative song-writing and smooth combination of folk, jazz and pop was well received by a relatively large Tuesday night crowd, with some even sitting on the floor to get a good view of the diminutive songstress behind the candy-apple red guitar. Opening with the sensual “When I’m Making Love to You,” she played an array of recorded and unrecorded songs, both old and new.

She played the sweet love song “Starting to Show” by request, as well as “Two Brown Eyes,” which Barber claimed was the only song she knew of in which the songwriter was writing about her own eyes.

Barber’s songs seem written to be sung in front of the heavy red curtains on The Grad Club stage. Barber was very open, going beyond the usual between-song banter, and sharing intimate stories, like the one behind “Ashes to Ashes,” about the death of her grandmother this year. Though she said she appreciated the audience’s attentiveness, Barber joked about hoping for more interaction.

“I feel like I’m the only one talking,” she said. “It’s like I’m caught in an awkward conversation that I can’t get out of at the moment, so I have to keep talking.”

The quiet crowd finally jumped in when she announced that the next song would be her last, and someone near the front interrupted her. Through a misheard, half-mic’d conversation, she was eventually offered three Creemore beers for three more songs.

She conceded, and played “Old Blue Carpet” by request, proving that the same track on A Note to Follow So does not do her voice justice. Next she played “For All Time,” a haunting reflection on her place in the world, which she said she has already chosen to be the last track on an album she’ll start recording in January.

On the final song, Barber led a singalong to an old ’50s country tune, her voice smoothing out the twang of the original. Judging by their reaction, Jill Barber’s version left the audience still singing “I remember the night, and the Tennessee waltz.”

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