Barnes kicked off both nights’ festivities performing solo on the “barnjo” - a custom-made hybrid banjo/electric guitar that he debuted this summer at Northwest String Summit. Melding the hammering drive and fine detail of his banjo-work on an instrument that allows him to fully embrace plugged-in rock-and-roll aggression, it proved the perfect outlet for his own wonderfully mercurial musical nature. Unlike the FolkTronics approach he had previously taken with his music, where he used Ableton software to craft a broad palette with the banjo, looping the instrument and incorporating beats and samples, this method had a considerably more stripped-down aesthetic. But this was some pure diesel, as Barnes travelled between sonic moods and textures with a tight, dizzying quickness.
It was cool to hear the open-throttle versions of songs spanning his career over both nights, from Bad Livers (“Lumpy, Beanpole & Dirt,” “Little Bitty Town,” “Legend of Sawdust Boogers,” “Going Where They Do Not Know My Name,” “Love Songs Suck”) through his latest album, the brilliant Pizza Box. Take, “Sleep,” a claustrophobic tale based on a friend of Barnes who went to jail. He told Barnes he was relieved when the cops finally busted in his door, because he knew they were coming and he could finally get some sleep. On Pizza Box, it unfolds like an unhinged dream, but the barnjo interpretation tapped its murky, shuddering dread in direct, close-to-the-bone cuts.
Meanwhile during “Everything Fades,” on the line “Everything fades/That was made by a man,” Barnes simply let a lonely, lovely hum hang in the air, as if to emphasize that point, before spiraling down into some heavy Stooges-like stomping. Barnes utilized the instrument with equally potency on more delicate tunes like Things I Done Wrong’s “Big Girl Blues,” which he nicely segued into T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” on New Year’s Eve, and “Overdue,” where he let the notes gracefully float and dissolve in the air. Plus you have to appreciate a man who wrote “Love Songs Suck” – which lent itself to a crushing barnjo interpretation perfectly - writing “Overdue.” It’s a love song which, to put it mildly, in no way sucks at all. That’s how you show ‘em how it’s done.
The barnjo also allows Barnes to more-readily tap the punk rock heart that has always set him apart from the often-tired roots music scene. He even played Minor Threat on the first night of the run for, "All the designated drivers out there," ripping out a vicious cover of “Straight Edge." It was a pretty ballsy song choice, especially on the cusp of a holiday that’s become associated with getting as FUBARed as possible. Barnes has always had that element of subversion in his music, and this latest badass development is no exception.