Peoria-born Matt Barber was in high school in 2003 when hits from hip-hop star 50 Cent and others by R. Kelly, Beyoncé and rocker Three Doors Down topped the popular music charts. Barber wasn’t oblivious to those sounds, but his passion attending Rock Island high school gravitated to the chart-topping songs of many generations prior.
“I was always a fan of classic crooners like Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra,” said Barber.
The passion began as early as learning to walk. The sound from the speakers of grandma’s stereo playing her huge collection of 78 rpm records enthralled him during visits. Other sensual flashbacks are equally vivid.
“I remember the aroma when I’d take the vinyl out of the sleeve. I remember sitting around her stereo listening to Bing Crosby and Andy Williams Christmas albums,” said Barber.
He knew as a teen that music was going to be a big part of his life, and at 16, he knew he wanted to be a performer and hit the road. In high school, he remembers driving from Rock Island to Chicago and then Peoria to perform mainly in coffeehouses. It didn’t take long to learn the road can be challenging.
“When I was 18, I went right on the road that summer. I lived out of my car for several months, you know I just …” Barber paused to reflect on that difficult stretch. “I just did it.”
And the music he was performing on the road was the same music grandma introduced him to as a small child. But coffeehouses probably wouldn’t sustain as a venue for Bing Crosby and Andy Williams covers. So he learned to “fish where the fish are” and found himself in upscale retirement communities. These non-traditional "venues" had a built-in audiences that also grew up listening to songs made famous by classic crooners, even if that "growing up" was 30 or 40 years before Barber was born.
In concert, he dresses the part. At one appearance at Starved Rock State Park Lodge in front of roughly 50 mostly seniors, Barber was snappily dressed in a red jacket covering a black button down shift. His black slacks bottomed out at the top of shiny black shoes.
At nearly all his gigs, Barber’s backing music is pre-recorded customized arrangements of songs tailored for his vocal range.
“What I do is a little different than a singer with a guitarist,” said Barber. “But I would love to be with a band all the time, but it’s hard to do. It’s hard to keep guys together, and it’s hard to finance it."
Barber has also learned to travel efficiently. His van is packed neatly with carefully wrapped sound gear, as well as with small tables, CDs and CD racks. Multiple suit jackets in various colors hang from a steel rod traversing the rear seat.
Watching Barber perform without knowing his backstory could be disconcerting. How could a 30-year old really be doing what he’s doing? And happily?
Retirement community residents that form the bulk of his audience certainly sense his sincerity. He sets each song with historical context or a story he knows will resonate with this age group. Or both. In a performance at Evergreen Village in Normal, he introduced “Moon River” by asking the audience if they remembered the Andy Williams TV show and related his memory of seeing Williams perform in Branson, Missouri, many times when Barber was a teen.
The audience of the Evergreen Village show is “all-in.” Seniors are smiling, nodding heads and singing along to many of the songs in Barber’s repertoire. You can almost see them flash back when they were his age when the songs were topping the charts. After the show, the residents don’t exactly “rush” Barber, but they do make a slow and gradual procession to the stage to share their stories with him.
“I wanted to tell you I really enjoyed that. I particularly love dance bands,” said Joanne, an Evergreen Village resident. It’s a sentiment Barber agreed with and replied that he’d recalled meeting her at a previous performance. “I love to dance, but I can’t dance anymore,” she said.
Away from the stage, there’s a palpable, if low burning intensity to Barber. He conceded many people discouraged him from pursuing a music career and said he couldn’t do it.
“I used the fuel from that hurt I had, cause I wanted to show people that I was going to do this. I think that helped me and gave me momentum to show people I was going to do something in my life,” said Barber.
And he is doing it. He thanks god for protecting him, and implied he had a number of “close calls” while touring.
“I never went into this because I wanted to be a star, that I want people to love me,” said Barber.
He said he wanted to make an impact on those hurting in the world, to reach them to let them know everything was going to be alright. He feels he’s succeeding on that front, but would like to take it to another level.
“And instead of singing for 50 people at a time, I’d like to sing to a couple thousand people,” said Barber.
And he’d like to bring his music to a younger audience, saying there a lot of young people who also need encouragement. But for now, Matt Barber is traveling the country, living his dream performing the music he loves.
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