MATTHEW BARBER opening for Destroyer at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Friday (July 18). $8.50. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
It's the final night of north by northeast, and i'm hiding from the humid heat in the back of the Rivoli. Matthew Barber's getting ready to play an early evening set. Barber's not the hot ticket tonight; most laminate lackeys are lined up down the road for the Snitches at the 'Shoe, waiting for Gord Downie's sold out show at Lee's or have shunted across town for the Weakerthans. In fact, due to an odd promoter bugaboo, Barber wasn't even allowed to publicize his NXNE appearance.
But there's tension in the air, a sense of post-hype anticipation. There are important-looking dudes (you can tell by their leathery faces and leather jackets) hovering by the bar.
The object of this electric buzz takes the stage. It's just the skinny singer slinging an acoustic, backed on vocals by his sister Jill ("She's gonna be way bigger than me. I guarantee it. She's three years younger than me, so it's just a matter of time. I plan on riding her coattails, actually. That's my future plan," he later laughs) and pal Julian Brown on upright bass.
I'm sitting cross-legged on the ground like a kindergartner, completely rapt. He kills me with charisma, so warm and chatty that even the most obnoxious industry folk in the back shut up.
It's way different from my first encounter with Barber, months earlier.
It was Valentine's day. A crowd of adorable indie rock couples with matching mesh caps were holding hands while Barber busted out gorgeously wrought pop tunes onstage.
I felt like I was gonna puke.
But it wasn't what you think. OK, so the tunes on his dazzling Means & Ends (Paper Bag) debut disc are introspective, sensitive-indie-boy ballads that mine the familiar territory of love, loss and longing. And, sure, I caught him on Hallmark's hearts-and-flowers holiday while nursing a jaded anti-romantic heart.
But my attention was focused on my stomach, 'cause I'd downed too many of those damn deadly cinnamon hearts. Devils in a bright red coating, they were scattered around the lovestruck El Mo to celebrate the launch of the new Stars record.
I realize the irony of the situation a month later, when Barber's album blows me away and I listen to the last track on repeat. The shakily bittersweet paean to spicy candy and hedonism's called Cinnamon Hearts.
At the time, however, the troubadour didn't register at all on my radar - nor that of most of the kids in the room.
Partly that's because he delivered his understated songcraft in the shadow of larger-than-life labelmates and "soft revolutionaries" Broken Social Scene and Stars, who dominated the stage during that Valentine's Day showcase.
But Barber's one of those guys who gets you in the double take. Have a closer listen to his stuff and you notice the details: the wryly literate lyrical twists, the heartstring-tug of a lovely violin riff, the perfect structure of a pop song.
The album, which Barber originally dropped as a self-produced indie release, didn't garner significant attention till Paper Bag re-released it back in the spring. He's still cynical about the label-related attention.
"There's this subtle mafia thing going on," he says slowly over beer and nachos on a sweltering afternoon in Kensington a month after that stellar NXNE show.
"If you're accepted into certain families you're exalted, and if you're not accepted you're on the outside looking in. There are a few of those little families.
"All the cool music scenes in the history of rock 'n' roll have probably had those cliquey elements to them, where people really feed off each other. It's more cutthroat, and the competitiveness drives you to do your best.
"It's funny, because I don't really consider myself in any of the mafia families I'm talking about. I'm a lone wolf right now in a way. Even with Paper Bag, there's Broken Social Scene and Stars, who've got their own thing going on, and Hawaii fit into that mould," says Barber of the atmospheric pop up-and-comers.
"I'm on friendly terms with all of them, but I feel like musically and artistically I haven't been embraced by those guys at all."
You get the sense that Barber's a lot more comfortable when he's outside the scenester fray.
The second time I see him live, he's headlining his own CD launch gig. Wearing a stripy hipster shirt and rocking out on electric guitar with a full-on rawk band, he's clearly more confident in front of the crowd, although his shaky stage banter suggests he's still slightly squeamish about taking on the role of indie rock poster boy.
When I show up for our post-NXNE interview, Barber's curled up on his front steps, immersed in the biography of another music industry skeptic, Neil Young. He's effusive about escaping into the manual labour of his yearly tree-planting stints, and wears the calluses on his palms like a Purple Heart of pride.
He still seems overwhelmed by the pace of Toronto, his home since last autumn. He wrote all of Means & Ends while moping over the end of a summer-fling-turned-long-distance-relationship in a Hamilton apartment where he was working toward his master's in philosophy.
"I've always found it easier to write when I'm kind of melancholy," groans Barber, "and that's why I think I'm having a hard time writing lyrics these days, 'cause I'm not that sad. So I'm looking for other things to write about."
Like Wittgenstein, for example. The object of Barber's obsession (and his thesis), the Austrian-born philosopher anticipated the word-fixated geeks of the postmodernist movement with his insistence that language deconstruction is the cornerstone of philosophy. He gives me an impromptu crash course on the philosopher, including Wittgenstein's penchant for music - he had perfect pitch and could whistle Beethoven bang on - before sheepishly admitting he's been trying to work a Wittgenstein quote into a song for years.
"I never did. Then I was listening to the latest New Pornographers album; there's a line in one of the Dan Bejar songs - 'The world is that which is the case'- that keeps repeating over and over in the chorus. It's the very first line of Wittgenstein's first book!"
In a weird twist of fate, Barber's opening for Bejar's band Destroyer at tomorrow's Horseshoe gig.
He still cites that stripped-down NXNE gig as a career highlight, and I can see his point. Barber's versatility - switching from a full band to a near-solo set-up takes cojones - was impressive, but what really stood out on that humid June eve was how the strength of his writing comes out when the songs are reduced to their fundamentals.
Intriguingly, the sensitive indie singer/songwriter pegs AC/DC's Highway To Hell as the best rock album of all time, and he's gearing up to rock out on his next disc. So what if he winds up undermining Paper Bag's airy pop aesthetic?