Last updated on January 26th, 2024 at 06:44 am
Barbaro launched their sophomore release, About the Winter, back on October 20th. It’s an album filled with their formula of traditional fiddle, banjo, and upright bass, but coated in new sounds. Produced by Bon Iver colleague Brian Joseph outside Eau Claire, the album plays as an elegant soirée into new experiments with textures and instrumentation, most notably, a flute. If you know anything about bluegrass, you know Barbaro is expanding that definition of the genre with that choice.
Barbaro’s Cedar Cultural Center release show featured an expanded lineup beyond the core trio of Kyle Shelstad, Rachel Calvert, and Jason Wells. They were joined on stage by original band member Isaac Sammis on banjo, and keyboardist/flutist Clifton Nesseth, filling the half circle with a new layer. Although the evening started out with familiar older songs like “Rita Cline,” “Aunt Betty,” and their namesake song “Barbaro,” the addition of the flute and keys filled the songs with warmth.
The new release has also seen the emergence of Rachel Calvert taking over more vocal leads. “All My Friends” and “Subtle Hints” received immediate applause and interaction with the audience. Hearing the new material live, songs like “Ike’s Farewell” carry an even greater dynamic and build. The band expertly turned the 7-minute song into waves of solos, controlling their volume and intensity as a unit.
In playing through the new songs, Barbaro executed more dips into reverb-laden parts, pushing closeness and distance with the acoustic instruments. But they also demonstrated patience in the buildup and telling of the songs, allowing space for things to develop. As a listener, it can be mesmerizing waiting for the buildups and gallop to finally kick in.
Maybe that patience comes with the long winters we endure, or maybe it’s from the way the songs came to be recorded. Written during our mandatory hibernation of the pandemic, the songs had a long time to marinate, and the band patiently avoided playing them much before taking them to Brian Joseph fresh and unrestricted.
Songs like “The Lil Sweaters” still capture the swagger and speed that Barbaro excels in. Ending the evening with their only cover, “Goodnight, Irene,” Barbaro invited some friends up on stage to lead the audience in one last warm singalong of the night.
Fitting into the middle of the evening was Laamar, who continues to evolve and expand on an already fresh approach. The new song “Ghosts” carries his trademark breezy, soft sound but with the heavy subject of losing someone. The contrast feels like eating cotton candy with the flavor of a complex Burgundy wine. His wife joining him on “My Kingdom” was a special treat as well.
Rounded out with Jason Wells pulling double duty on bass and “the only James Taylor” on drums, Laamar has an eclectic variety of songs to turn to. Touches of Bosa Nova, country, and R&B make the future bright for what lies ahead on his new album, and you can catch Laamar at First Avenue’s Best New Bands of 2023 next month.
The poignant songwriter and crafty vocalist Hemma opened the evening. Currently finishing up a new album of music for 2024, many of the songs were a peek into that. “Pastures of Heaven” continues to carry along goosebumps when heard live, and Hemma’s soft nature and nurture bring instant attention to her performance.