It seems like only yesterday when my friend called excitedly on the phone and said she’d just seen Del Barber in concert, and wanted to see him every night of the week for the rest of her life. With such a ringing endorsement, I needed no further encouragement to seek out some music for my library. From the moment I heard “Coming Home With the Summer,” on his “Love Songs For the Last 20” album, I was hooked. Subsequently, I have spent many a spirited hour listening to Del spin stories and songs that seemed plucked straight out of an endless prairie night and poured into my claustrophobic urban heart.
Del Barber has what surely must be considered a quintessential Canadian voice – natural, pure and tender. His songs are sparked with imagery that only a person deeply connected to a vast open space could conjure. With his upcoming new release, “Stray Dogs,” a collection of so-called unfinished demos , Barber takes us even deeper into his chosen art form. There is not one song out of place and every one hits the mark.
Often referred to as Canada’s John Prine, Barber’s songs do have characters and misadventures, but there can really be no comparison. Barber is a distinctive artist, weaving his tales in an approach both vocally and musically that is entirely his own. Presented through a veil of pedal steel and lush guitars, Barber’s beautiful singing floats inside these tunes like a call from a dear distant friend, as fresh as the dew glittering over a field in a bright summer sunrise.
These songs and album came in a period of deep self-doubt and in some ways the music reflects the concerns. The global pandemic touched all of us with uncertainty and working musicians, particularly, had more than their share to contend with. Barber has found an easy balance between somber reflection and uplifted joy on these tracks. “There will always be tomorrow, only fools forget… / Nobody’s selling mercy in this town tonight / Nobody got the answers to the questions on your mind,” states the character in “Nothing Left To Find,” philosophically aloof, but with a tinge of regret.
Recorded by longtime band friend and producer Scott Franchuk (Shaela Miller), “Stray Dogs” drifts through well-chosen instrumentation, each representing the mood and tone of the compositions. Accompanied by guitars, brushed drums, mandolin and pedal steel, the backgrounds fit the lyric and melody in a time-tested fashion. Barber’s finger picked guitar and slight twang inflection has always been the cornerstone of his gift and magic.
The exemplary striking tune, “Friends Like Us,” is a work worth more than its weight in gold. Heartfelt sincere lyrics, a late-night conversation, pedal steel swirls like a jukebox in the background. It can’t get better than this – but with an artist like Del Barber, it does. The album is a mix of uplifting toe-tappers and contemplative sorrow, where tracks like “Travelin’” and “Fishin’ And Wishin’’’ are bound to get your head bobbing along, with an ear-to-ear grin; while “Meantime” and “Empty Plate And An Appetite” will make you pause and nod to those you love most in your time.
Following up on his 2020 Juno-nominated “Easy Keeper” album, “Stray Dogs” has a touch of something for every taste. More importantly, Barber lets you in, invites you to spend time with a maturing songwriter, continuing to hone his song craft. Polished to a fine gloss, they reflect back all that he has learned, felt, and seen, and they shine. Although subtly titled “B Sides Vol. 1,” every song is an A plus to my ears. Nothing exemplifies this more than the closing tune, “Just A Little Heat,” which plies all the characteristics of a Del Barber classic – understated, plaintive, and direct. Comforting and soothing in its cloak of simple mandolin and guitar, Del holds you close through the storm and points to where the sun peaks through a far horizon, clouded with weather. All things must pass, and we know it. We are so lucky to have Del Barber singing by our side as we journey onward.
“Stray Dogs” shall be available this coming Friday, via acronym Records.