Tuesday, September 8, 2009
You Gotta Buy This Record: Lee Barber's Thief and Rescue
A few months ago, Matt the Electrician asked me to emcee a The Island of Lost Souls, a music extravaganza he was putting on. That was the day I got my first taste of the tunes Lee Barber had written for his debut CD Thief and Rescue. One song in particular, All Night Long, grabbed me and shook me. Partly, this is because it’s a damn fine song. On a more personal note, it happens that, as Lee and his friends were singing it, out in the audience I was having a very intense emotional exchange with a friend of mine, someone with whom I’d had a long time falling out—we’re talking fifteen years—and at that very moment we were, way past when we should have been, patching it over. As someone who associates everything with everything else, this meant that I knew then that, for the rest of my life, anytime I heard the song, it would take me back to that incredible moment.
The next time I heard the song was a few weeks ago. Lee called to let me know the CD was about to come out and asked if I’d like an advance copy. Of course I did. We met up in a parking lot in South Austin, and he handed it over like we were kids swapping small bills for skunkweed. I think it’s always a little nerve wracking for both giver and receiver, when two people know each other and one asks the other to check out his newborn art. The giver wants the gift to be loved. The receiver wants to love it. But what if there’s a disconnect?
I wasn’t especially worried. Not only because I’d heard that set so I already knew I liked Lee’s stuff, but also because I know Lee is… how do you say it? A life artist? Is that too corny? But, you know, someone who lives his beliefs which I think is almost always bound to translate into true beauty. Plus our circle of overlapping friends is big, and within those nonconfining confines are some of my very favorite Austin musicians—Matt the Electrician and Southpaw Jones among them. So I figured I was going to like the CD but I wondered just how much I would like it.
Well, well, well…
I listened to it on a drive out to the Hill Country where I was headed to perform a wedding. Though I am prone to hyperbole roughly 176% of the time, I have to say there is not a drop of exaggeration in the proclamation of love I am about to make. The record was, in a very weird way, wildly familiar and totally fresh and unknown all at once. I can’t figure out how Lee did that, but he did it. And as I listened, I was pulled in the way I was pulled in by early Bowie when I was a young girl, and later, in my twenties, when I first heard Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man. And, too, for some reason, Mott the Hoople came to mind, though I can’t even say I’m terribly familiar with much MTH beyond All the Young Dudes.
Now when I say these other artists came to mind, I don’t mean to suggest Lee is derivative. He is, in fact, wholly unique—from his writing to his voice. Granted, we’re all influenced by those who precede us. And when I found out later that Lee’s earliest ventures into music when he was a teen included a Leonard Cohen songbook, I wasn’t surprised. But I’m not talking so much about lyrics and musical arrangements when I reference vintage Bowie and Cohen. I’m trying to say that Thief and Rescue made me feel how those early works made me feel. An immediate connection that produced a visceral, palpable emotional… thing for which there is no precise word, but more like a guttural grunt-growl of recognition and gratitude.
There is not a weak cut on this record. And I am so psyched that twice recently, when tuned into different stations—KUT and KGSR—I heard the jocks singing the praises of the record, and playing cuts from it. In a town crawling with stunning songwriting talent, it is nothing short of amazing to quietly put out a piece that is so uncompromising and instantly have others get it and want to play it on the air repeatedly.
I read a profile of Lee that Corcoran wrote for the Statesman, which goes a long way toward explaining how my friend managed to pull off this magnificent musical feat. Turns out there’s nothing new to the “formula” he used, but that this “formula” is rarer and rarer to come by. And that is the no-formula-formula, in which one writes directly from one’s heart, and in this case that heart happened to have the blessing/curse of double-whammy disasters (divorce and utter destruction-via-hurricane of his hometown, New Orleans) inspiring what poured out of him. Anybody remember Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, which they did together while going through a divorce? Well Lee’s ex, harpist Elaine Barber, with whom he used to be in the group The Barbers, is featured on the disk (along with many other incredible musicians, including Curtis McMurtry on baritone sax) which is another clue to the pure emotion that went into the creation.
The whole thing is just over the top. Over. The. Top. It was released yesterday and you can buy it at Waterloo or order it from Lee’s website. And I do hope you’ll all join me Thursday night at 11 pm when he takes the stage at The Continental Club, joined by his band, The Broken Cup. They’ll be playing the whole record, start to finish. I really can’t wait.
Check out an interview and some cuts at KUT Texas Music Matters.
Posted by Spike Gillespie at 10:50 AM