Celebrating the release of a new album is no small event. For Barbaro, it’s been a long time coming. Two weeks ago saw the official drop of their album, Dressed in Roses. The Cedar Cultural Center proved to be a worthy venue for the evening of acoustic music, the stage was even done up with bouquets of roses. As a seated show, there was a level of intimacy and peacefulness in knowing every note would be heard. By the end of the show, there was an energy waiting to burst up and out of the seated audience members, a telltale sign that Barbaro’s music is instantly infectious.
Opening the evening was a solo Humbird echoing out “Postcards From Paonia” into the quiet audience. As her set-list progressed, so did the audience’s engagement. For “Eve Boards a Train” there were chuckles when hearing the line, “Take your rib back, for which I never asked.” Humbird’s ability to voice a message through storytelling sets her apart. There’s another layer under every lyric and each time you hear the song, you sink in deeper.
The highlight of the evening came when she played three different “Happy Love Song Vignettes,” each short and progressing from being in love to death. Each short song had the crowd smiling and glued to the next message in the progression. Humbird’s new album Pharmakon has definitely been a springboard to her music. Catch her one more time at Icehouse next Tuesday before she begins a West Coast tour.
Chicken Wire Empire
For what felt like a very short set, Milwaukee based Chicken Wire Empire took the stage next. The five-piece band traded solos and established some immediate foot-tapping across the venue. “Rope” was an early example of Chicken Wire Empire’s grit and layering. Watching them weave around each other, like a dance, and blend their instruments was entertaining to witness. Humbird came back out and joined them for a cover of “Silver Dagger.” It was a special moment, and felt it completely natural hearing her voice with a bluegrass band.
Immediately after that song, Jordan Kroeger (bass) stepped up the microphone for “Summer & Me.” The thrust and energy of his voice is a beautiful complement to Ryan Ogburn’s (mandolin). It once again sparked some foot tapping and dancing in the back of The Cedar. They ended the set with a song dedicated to Barbaro’s release. As they sang about roses and the audience savored the short set as we all were prepped for Barbaro’s entrance.
With just one single microphone in front, Barbaro took the stage and gathered around it. As Kyle Shelstad shared, the album had been completed for almost a year. Now surrounded by family and friends, there was a genuine happiness in finally getting to this point.
Barbaro started by playing the album from front to back. As a vinyl release, Dressed in Roses has purpose as a complete album. Each song and placement matters and it was important to have the band perform it as is. Starting with “Cold Stack,” which has the catchiest hook, the mood was set. Kyle’s voice reminds me of Chris Thile. The warm, engaging, caramel tones give every song a hand to hold on to, to pull you in. “Aunt Betty” displays this trait well, with Rachel Calvert adding a light sheen.
After a bittersweet story about a large ex-cat, “Kawliga” had a couple dancing down the very slim and tight back aisle of the venue. Their performance of “Montana, Oh” had every bit of softness and grace you hear on the album. Sparse and delicate, it brought goosebumps to the air. Isaac Sammis’ “Mississippi Thunder Speedway” sped up the evening with an instrumental performance and showcase of skills. Watching Jason Wells’ bass and Isaac’s banjo solos cement their musicianship as a band.
Ending the album with “All Those Folks,” the weight of the evening took form. As my favorite track on the album, hearing this live was a worthy wait. The completed 10 songs is a statement to the 4 musicians and the accomplishment now at their feet. Barbaro transitioned into a fast instrumental song and, like a firecracker, the audience was ready to explode. As the rowdiest portion of the evening transpired, there was clapping and dancing, a celebration of music. Rachel covered Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” with fire and power.
The encore saw Chicken Wire Empire and Humbird join Barbaro for the final two songs. With each member taking a solo, the collaboration of bluegrass music felt like a family reunion; one where we can all celebrate our achievements, champion successes, and build a better community through music.