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Del Barber finds he can’t escape home
When one thinks of the aesthetic of Canada’s prairie provinces, rolling fields of yellow wheat and barley and a monotonous flatness come to mind - at least it does for some of those who have never called the Prairies home.
But to Winnipeg born and raised musician Del Barber, that mid-western topography provides more than endless sky, it’s a place that he’s explored physically and through song and serves as a narrative for his fourth and latest album, aptly titled Prairieology.
He’s also happy that the landscape, particularly in Manitoba, doesn’t have the same tramped upon familiarity as say B.C.
“Manitoba has mountains,” he exclaims. “We have the escarpment and Riding and Duck Mountains.... There is so much water and pieces of the Shield, the short and tall grasses. Like the rest of the Prairies, the landscape is changing.”
About to perform the next audience on-stage concert at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Monday, Barber evokes these images through his songwriting. In fact, the music off Prairieology should help any homesick Prairie ex-pat leave the Okanagan for a little while, if not physically.
That was Barber’s goal in making Prairieology (released on label True North), which was born out of a love for his home, its people and their stories.
A departure from his 2011, Love Songs for the Last Twenty, which was nominated for a Juno for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year, and won two Western Canadian Music awards for Best Independent Album of the Year and Best Roots Solo Recording of the Year, Prairieology is told in a more traditional country vein.
“Songwriting was a way for me to get around the Prairie aesthetic. I wanted to use straight forward accessible language that hinges on a good story” said Barber. “I think there is some parable-like quality to the songs that exist on a primary narrative level and though the songs sound like country, hopefully after that first listen, you see more things with more listens.”
The album is also a coming home for Barber, who like his other youthful compatriots, left the Prairies to satisfy a travel bug and work elsewhere.
“A lot of kids from the Prairies feel they have to leave, and then you have to leave to see what you have,” he said. “You really can’t escape where you come from.”
Before Barber entered a studio with his guitar, he worked in 15 states and eight provinces in such jobs as tree planter, mountain guide, janitor, construction worker, groundskeeper, landscaper, farmer, counsellor, ice-maker, teacher’s assistant, driver, roofer, and fisherman. He even went on a spiritual journey for a while, studying philosophy at North Park University, a Christian liberal arts institution in Chicago, where he also endeavoured in songwriting.
“I was not satisfied with easy answers, I look for good questions,” he said. “My parents were not religious, but some of my friends were involved in spiritual life and they did good work. It made me interested in religion.
“I experimented with that and played a lot of churches. I love the music, the older traditional hymns. I think it’s better when tradition permeates your life rather than being history-less.”
When making Prairieology, Barber didn’t want to escape his own history, or be an unfaithful husband to his home as he calls it, so he set out to make the album as authentic as possible.
He recorded the album using all Prairie-based musicians, with his best friend from childhood (JP Laurendeau) as engineer, using site specific locales, including a 150-foot grain silo to capture the reverb. The rhythm section was taped live in a downtown Winnipeg recording studio located in an old bank next to the Winnipeg Commodity Exchange, where grain is traded and exported.
“I had the opportunity to record in Nashville, but I said no. I wanted the album to be Canadian and I thought sincerity and honesty was the best way to approach the album,” said Barber.
Even the album’s cover, showing Barber in a Van Gogh-ish light, with wheat fields and mountains in the background, was painted by Alberta artist Justina Smith.
“Some people say I look unhappy on the cover, but I am really actually happy,” he said. “Justina is a fan of the music so it made the most sense to use her and she understood the songs.”
Opening for Barber in Vernon are fellow Prairie folk, Oh My Darling, whose roots are mixed with bluegrass, Appalachian old-time southern twang, and Franco-folk.
All four of the female quartet’s albums have been honoured with nominations for Best Roots Album in the Western Canadian Music Awards. The group, featuring Allison de Groot (banjo/vocals), Rosalyn Dennett (fiddle/vocals), Vanessa Kuzina (vocals/guitar) and Marie-Josée Dandeneau (upright bass/vocals) has toured throughout Europe and North America and has headlined Canadian tours. They have also topped the national campus roots charts and have received regular play on CBC Radio, along with being featured on CBC Radio 2’s Canada Live concert series.
Monday’s concert with Barber and Oh My Darling follows last’s months appearance by Royal Wood as part of the Vernon Performing Arts Centre’s on-stage concerts, a cabaret-style show where the audience is up on stage with the artists.
Tickets are $25 and include a complimentary signature beverage provided by Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the concert starts at 7:30 p.m. Limited seating is available. No minors. Tickets are at the Ticket Seller box office. Call 549-SHOW (7469) or visit www.ticketseller.ca.