Review: Matthew Barber and the End of the Seventh Fire Series

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Last month, Seventh Fire Records offered up the twelfth and final release in its Seventh Fire Series, featuring acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter Matthew Barber getting back together with his old bandmates, The Spades, with whom he toured the country back in 2006 and 2008. We take a quick look at the new album, then look back at the Series and forward at what’s coming next.

Matthew Barber has always been one to set his own path. In 2011, after spending some time with the labels, he returned to independent production for a self-titled, self-recorded seventh album. So the homegrown aesthetic of the Seventh Fire Series seems a perfect fit for Barber. This independent spirit is certainly front and centre in Barber’s ballad “Fool For You,” the b-side on his 7”. Despite its laid-back tempo and lazy slide guitar, this is a song of defiance, and you can easily imagine his repeated refrain, “I’m not gonna be a fool for you,” as a kiss-off to the controlling influence of the major labels (or indeed, anyone or anything that stands in Barber’s way). “When I was a young boy, I learned the golden rule,” sings Barber. “But every rule has its exceptions, and exception number one has to do with the people who’ve been keeping me from having just a little bit of fun.”

Matthew Barber and The Spades at the Hootenanny On Hunter Street

Having fun is certainly the operative phrase on the album’s a-side, “People Got To Know.” It feels like a house party song, with a laid-back, boozy groove, a slightly goofy tone, and the kind of chorus you just want to sing along to with a roomful of old friends and complete strangers. In fact, Barber’s record is actually a pretty perfect distillation of the Seventh Fire Series, capturing both its fiercely independent, DIY spirit, and its existence as a safe space for musicians to come together and play (in every sense of the word).

 

This makes it an ideal send-off for the Series, but it’s still a sad one. In fact, August gave us both the final release in the Seventh Fire Series and the final performance ever by The Spades, in a powerful, bittersweet closing set at the Hootenanny On Hunter Street. Earlier this year, Tommy Street, label president and Spades drummer, was diagnosed with a serious medical condition. It’s been inspiring to watch all the support coming in for Street from friends, associates, and well-wishers, but it’s left the Series plagued by delays and scheduling problems. There nearly wasn’t a June 7”, until local rockers The Birthday Boys stepped in and offered up their 2011 7”, Daughter’s Man/Ain’t Worth The Fight, for release.

The three albums of the Seventh Fire Series so far.Still, the Series leaves behind a truly impressive track record. Over the past twelve months, we’ve seen releases from local music treasures (The Spades, The Weber Brothers, Dave Tough…), and a rash of tremendously gifted newcomers that deserve to join their ranks (The Express And Company, Nick Ferrio & His Feelings, Beginner’s Guide To Endings). And throughout, the Series has been a place for musicians to share songs, cigarettes, stories, and more with artists from Peterborough and across the country. Just look at all the famous faces that have passed through: Matthew Barber, Crash Vegas’ Michelle McAdorey returning to recording music after over ten years away, Serena Ryder lending back-up vocals to her old bandmate Dave Tough, and production assistance from the likes of Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo and Gord Sinclair of The Tragically Hip.

The Series has also just been a wonderfully strange and ballsy experiment. From the very start, I called this Series a bit crazy, and I still maintain that’s true. In an age when music is getting cheaper, easier, and more accessible, vinyl is expensive, complicated, and a lot of work. But, then again, who needs yet another source for simple music, really? Don’t we all have Songza, Rdio, Grooveshark, Soundcloud, ReverbNation, Bandcamp, iTunes, CBC Music, podcasts, internet radio, music blogs, and a billion other places?

What the Series does is make a conscious decision that maybe, music doesn’t have to be that easy. When you open Microsoft Word, you want it to appear the moment you ask for it and completely disappear from your life when you’re done with it – but maybe music deserves something more. Everything about the Seventh Fire Series bestows a bit more respect on its music: the exclusivity of being a Series member and receiving these attractive, expensive, limited-edition objects; the excitement of getting that package in the mail every month and opening it up like a Christmas present; the ritual of setting it up on the turntable; and then, when you’re done with it, the decision to set aside even just a small part of your home and your life where the record can live forever.

Chris Altmann

Chris Altmann, another talented artist featured in the Seventh Fire Series

And lest accessibility become an issue, the folks at Seventh Fire have bent over backwards to make their music as available as possible. Along with their vinyl, Series members also get the same thing on CD and mp3. In fact, while writing this article, I’ve been listening to the entire Seventh Fire Series. In order to that, all I had to do was head over to this Soundcloud playlist set up by Seventh Fire and hit the big friendly orange ‘play’ button. And that’s for everyone, by the way, not just paying members. The only way it could be easier is if I could pluck the music out of thin air.

But in the end, when we look back on the Series ten, fifteen years down the road, I don’t think we’ll simply see it as some intriguing, noble little experiment cut short too early – but instead as just another mile marker along the road. This won’t be the end for the passionate, talented minds behind Seventh Fire Records. Just as the Series gave us the last-ever recording from The Spades, it was also gave us the first solo music from Spades frontman James McKenty in over ten years. The Series’ abrupt end means it will never turn into the wonderful, enduring Peterborough institution we might have hoped it would be, but it is certainly a landmark for the musicians involved, and for the town. It leaves behind The Express And Company with the Series-featured “Carry Me Along” continuing to climb the national Top 20 charts. It leaves behind Nick Ferrio, Beginner’s Guide To Endings, Chris Altmann, and more of the Seventh Fire bands continuing to gain fans and tour the country. And it leaves behind 24 songs, over 90 minutes of music, and 12 little round black testaments to great music treated right.

 

Matthew Barber’s Seventh Fire Series record (and all the others) are streaming on Soundcloud, and are available for purchase via Seventh Fire Records.

And check out our past reviews of other Seventh Fire Series albums: Dave Tough ft Serena Ryder, The Weber Brothers, Nick Ferrio & His Feelings, Chris Altmann, The Spades, and Melissa Payne.

 

Hootenanny photo by Scott Dancey. Other images courtesy the artists.

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