The first time I saw Del Barber perform I had no idea who he was. My sister had won tickets on CFCR and we went because it was free and we had nothing better to do. Del opened that show, which took place in a church somewhere on the west side, and both of us were so enamoured by his set that when the headliner came on, he paled in comparison and we ditched before the show was over.
The next time Del came to town, I took my boyfriend, my parents and my grandmother, because I knew what to expect and wanted all of my people to experience it as well. It was early on in my relationship with my boyfriend and the music of Del Barber became part of the soundtrack of us.
When we heard Del was coming through again, this time with the Broadway Theatre’s Close Quarter Series at The Refinery on April 9, we dragged my parents out of the house to come with us. My father raised my siblings and I on a steady diet of John Prine, Gordon Lightfoot and Valdy. My appreciation of folk music was ingrained by listening to my daddy interpret the songs of these masters on his 12-string guitar as we were growing up. Taking our seats in the round at venue, it was gratifying to see that good, true country music is still appreciated by all ages. There was a seven-year-old boy sitting a few seats down from us and a couple in their seventies on the other side of the room.
Del Barber is Canadian folk incarnate, a fully realized character of the prairies. His most recent album Prairieography, was recorded inside a 150-foot grain silo and the songs featured on it are about growing up in Manitoba, being endlessly on the road and all the many insights, observations and tales he’s gained along the way.
This was the first time Del has brought his band, The Profiteers, along to Saskatoon, but he started off the show with just him and his guitar, joking that the band’s union wouldn’t let him work them too hard. I vastly prefer to listen to live music sitting in a comfortable chair, surrounded by fellow music lovers, respectfully listening to the offerings of the performer and this is exactly how the first set of the evening unfolded. It wasn’t until the end of the second set that the stagette party at the back and the drunk, rhythm-less girl in the front row forgot to use the generally accepted concert whisper and started loudly yammering over the soft, vulnerable bits of the songs. One could hardly blame them for being excited though when the band picked up and the melodies transformed from melancholy to exuberant.
Del’s stage performance involves as much acting as it does singing with the stories he tells in between and during songs as important as the lyrics, so having him appear in a room usually occupied by theatre productions was appropriate. You don’t fully experience the music of Del Barber until you’ve seen him live. The background he shares on the writing of his songs reveal layers the recorded versions can’t. His stage banter consists of monologues that are obviously studied and practiced, but manage to still somehow come off as spontaneous. Even when we’d heard a story before, we willingly went along for the ride to the punch line, completely entranced and carried along into another stirring ballad or two-step worthy tune.
During the intermission and following the show, Del manned his own merch table and spent just enough time talking to each of the fans that came up to purchase a CD or compliment him to make them feel special. He is a genuinely affable guy, so unpretentious and warm that he not only remembers my mom talking to him after the show a year ago and offering him a place to stay and all the perogies he could eat next time he’s passing through, he claims to still have her card in his wallet.
The show was expertly crafted in order to continually alternate between the kind of heartbreaking songs that make you tear up and old-fashioned country tunes to which the whole audience collectively taps their toes. Del’s songs evoke emotion expertly. The mournful “Big Smoke” had my boyfriend and I choking back sobs, while the number that closed the show, a fuck-the-world anthem called “Living With A Long Way To Go”, lifted a bit of the weight of everyday from our shoulders. We didn’t always clap at the end of a song. Sometimes I just squeezed his hand a little tighter in mine and that was our applause.