MATTHEW BARBER as part of Friends With Benefits, NOW Lounge (189 Church), tonight (Thursday, December 22), 8:30 pm. $10. 416-364-1301. Rating: NNNNN
People encounter Matt Barber in the randomest places: he's surfaced everywhere from a Great Canadian Bagel outlet on the east coast to a Tim Hortons in the GTA, from gyms to salons.
Mind you, this is the disembodied, power-pop-blasting voice of Barber we're talking about, not the man in the flesh, though in the past year he's toured Sweet Nothing, his full-length debut for Warner, to more than a few remote stretches of Canada.
While it's clear Barber is still adjusting to the transition from low-key indie rock bard to eTalk-interviewed radio rock heartthrob, he admits that hearing his own single in the aisles of the local Dominion is a pretty cool trip.
"I get a certain kind of satisfaction in hearing my songs played on radio outlets," he confesses, "and I've received some pretty hilarious e-mails from people with stories of how they've heard (lead single) Soft One in the oddest locations.
"I just happen to have a weird kind of mainstream success on certain levels that other people don't have access to. It helps me out, and it makes the people at the label happy."
Barber wears his growing mainstream popularity like a pair of shoes he's still trying to break in. Though he insists he has no regrets about signing to Warner - other than a few compromises he's learned to let slide - you get the sense the former philosophy nerd would rather be covering Clash and Jimmy Cliff songs and playing to handfuls of people at the Tranzac than trying to pack mega-clubs and score a Juno nod.
It makes sense that he'd be drawn to gigs like this weekend's Friends With Benefits concert to help out the UN Office For Humanitarian Affairs, for which Barber's giving his Union Dues band the night off to play a stripped-down solo set.
"I haven't played alone since May, and after 50 or 60 shows with the band, I'm looking forward to it. But," he quickly adds, "I'm playing this show cuz it's a good cause, not to counteract the effects of playing big shows."
That's also what Live Country Music is for. Not the genre itself, but his old-timey side project, in which Barber steps away from the mic to lay down two-step shuffles and rambling rhythms behind the drum kit. While they've been known to cover Hank Williams, Live Country Music is more of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink outlet for Barber's organ-happy roommate, Chuck Erlichman, and guitar-picking former roommate, Doug Paisley, to trade off on songwriting duties, resulting in a charming grab bag of off-kilter, roots-centred mayhem that's as likely to sound like a Hendrix-led hootenanny as it is a downtempo Sam Cooke ballad.
"It's purely for the fun of it, which is what I like about the band. At the beginning, writing and performing songs was only about that, but once you get involved in the game, the pressure builds. You start dreading your reviews; you worry about falling short of expectations after you put out a few albums; the label gets involved ."
"It's not all fun and games for me any more with my own stuff," Barber slowly adds. "Without the other project, I'd probably get a little bit sour. Live Country Music is still totally, in the words of Matthew Sweet, 100 per cent fun."
Right now, the most stressful dilemma for Live Country Music is trying to figure out who their official bass player is. Jon-Rae & the River's Ian Russell started out as the other half of the rhythm section, but when he couldn't make a few shows, their pal Tomaz Jardim filled in; now there are two equally rad Live Country Music bassists on tap. So who knows which bass boss will show up for their next public throwdown in the new year, when they hit the Rivoli January 7 with Steve Ketchen's Kensington Hillbilly country crew?
Other than that, the only conundrum Barber sees with his side project is the prospect of people getting confused by the name, which was chosen when the fellas were just a country covers band.
"We all secretly like the name thing more than we'd care to admit, which is why nobody's put his foot down," he laughs. "It has its complications, but nothing that we can't overcome. And there's still a country basis to the band; if we're gonna cover stuff, it'll be George Jones, not AC/DC."