How do I even approach writing about Courtney Barnett? To blabber on and on about what makes her music great is to overthink and spoil the mood that she generates, and to write nothing is to foolishly ignore the complexities of what lurks behind her songs. The same could be said of her public persona. With Barnett, there is always a fine line between the ordinary and what’s beneath the surface. She seems like the most down to earth person you’ll ever meet, yet when you get her on a stage, you’ll witness one of the most exciting rock musicians of the day. Perhaps because of this, expectations were so high that the show had to be moved from a smaller venue to the extra-spacious Metropolis. This should be enough proof that if you weren’t there Sunday night, you may have missed a new star on the rise.
The first act, TSP a.k.a. The Sandwich Police, unfortunately didn’t have the same effect on me. They are one of those bands that haven’t decided on what band they would like to be (although their name rules). The first half of their set had a very country-folk-rock vibe, that sounded like The Band unsuccessfully trying to cover Velvet Underground. The harmonies of band members Evan Dando, Willy Mason, and Marciana Jones were warm and inviting, but the music underneath was a bit too bland for my liking. It was not the best way to rile up a crowd of hyperactive rock and roll fans. The other half of their set picked up the pace, but where were the harmonies?! That’s like taking away the harmonies from early The Beach Boys records! When you have harmonies that good, you can afford to sound a little bit generic.
As for Courtney Barnett’s set, what can I say? I’m an incredibly biased fan-boy. I was happy the second I walked in the building! Even so, a completely objective non-fan would tell you the same thing as I would. She put on an almost flawless show and made it seem fucking easy thanks to her band, her songs, and her innate charisma. Most performers would try to make up for a lack of such skills with canons shooting out confetti or long rambling monologues to fill in the time; but for Courtney, “Thank You” and “Our next song is called…” was all she needed to say.
Right out of the gate, she opened the show with some of her lesser-known tracks, which caught me by surprise. I honestly thought of “Small Poppies” as one of the weaker cuts from Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, but in a live setting it flourished in a way that effectively tore down her wall of clever words and purposely mundane imagery to reveal an open wound of vulnerability. It was a surprising highlight that allowed for a full-band freak out and gut-wrenching howls from Barnett. Crowd-assisted performances of “Avant Gardener” and “Depreston” only confirmed them as instant classics, and rockers like “Pedestrian at Best” and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” upped the grunge level so significantly that I was somewhat disappointed that the cheerleaders from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video didn’t make an appearance.
What I really appreciated most about the show was how it seemed to cater to the die-hard fans. Barnett seemed to go out of her way not to play the most popular songs. For one, I would never have guessed that she would have included a compilation track like “Pickles From The Jar” as an encore. I was especially delighted to hear a new tune that she was still working on, giving a level of intimacy that you don’t always get from other performers. This is not to say that we were all deserving of such attention. I still cringe thinking of the attention-seeking douchebag wearing no shirt and a bra who proceeded to interrupt Barnett with a moronic line like, “I want to have your babies!” I think I admire her all the more for shooting him down with a deadpan, “‘Ew, that’s gross.” The proceeding cheers and exclamations of “I love you!” from the crowd only further clinched the deal.
I should probably stop shovelling heaps of praise onto Courtney Barnett. No artist should have to live up to that kind of pressure. I also have a strong suspicion that she wouldn’t want it. However, I will say this: go to her show, buy her albums and listen to them as much as you can. More than any other successful recording and performing artist out there today, you will be getting your money’s worth. Just know that she is probably making origami out of it.
Written by Shawn Thicke
Header Photo by Danny Clinch
*edited by Kate Erickson