When you see a performer for the first time, it could sometimes be a hit-or-miss phenomenon. I went to the Roxy to see Courtney Barnett on Saturday night without any preconceived idea, although I had really enjoyed some of her tunes, like ‘Avant Gardener’, one of the first songs of hers that I heard. And should I say it was a total hit last night? Courtney trashed the place like there was no tomorrow, she was on fire, she unleashed some rock demon she had inside, but at the same time she didn’t lose her coolness for even a second…
With her cute tomboy look, she made everything sound so easy, and the effortlessness she showed when she played her songs, the detachment she put in her delivery didn’t leave my mind the whole time. This young Australian seems to be a sort of anomaly in this musical landscape, she doesn’t even try and she looks extra cool, she is not an intellectual but she appears extra smart. Her songs are rocking, with a bluesy undertone and her voice is the trick, this nonchalant ennui she distills at each line, which are full of an impressive number of words. If you are familiar with her album, ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’, or her previous release, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas’, you know what I am talking about, she is a real songwriter, her words are important and she can pack more words in a 3-minute songs than most rappers can do, or may be Bob Dylan would be a better comparison? You can’t ignore her texts, even though the music is blown up, amped up to new proportions, becoming overwhelming and very loud when she plays her songs live. There’s a rare freshness in what she does, she talks a lot about organic vegetables or some other casualness around her, and her songs are like mini-road trips with a zillions of details you start to discover along the road, ‘Heading down the Highway Hume/Somewhere at the end of June/Taxidermied kangaroos are littered on the shoulders/A possum Jackson Pollock is painted in the tar/Sometimes I think a single sneeze could be the end of us’, she sings in ‘Dead Fox’, whose tempo keeps Lou Reed in my mind the whole time. Every time Courtney evokes longing or loneliness, the feeling seems to be distracted by all these details coming in mass at once, but you soon discover they are just there to reinforce the original feeling. ‘I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling/It’s a kind of off-white, maybe it’s a cream/There’s oily residue zipping from the kitchen/It’s art-deco necromantic chic, all the dinner plates are kitsch with/Irish Wolf Hounds, French baguettes wrapped loose around their necks/I think I’m hungry, I’m thinking of you too’, she laments in ‘An Illustration of Loneliness (sleepless in New York)’. Each song builds a vivid imagery, a unique atmosphere, and this looks so clever you want to learn all the words of all the songs to sing with her, as the crowd at the Roxy did. I was certainly surrounded by die-hard fans who turned many songs into sing-alongs, as it happened during the melancholic ballad ‘Depreston’, which had slowed down the show a bit for just a few minutes.
Still, when you see Courtney live, except if you know every single word of her songs, you are not too preoccupied by the casualness-turned-unique atmosphere of her short stories, the music is too loud for this, it reigns powerful and wild from start to finish. Courtney holds her guitar very high and the songs sound very little like her albums’ little gems. I have lost count of how many times she folded herself in two, leaned on her guitar playing on her knees, and how often she rolled her back on the floor, she ran some furious stage antics for everyone’s pleasure and she seemed to have a great time. And after much more stage action and ‘Lance Jr’ (a song which certainly has a strong Nirvana vibe), I got this revelation, Courtney Barnett was totally channeling Kurt Cobain! She commanded the scene like a guy, sweeping the room with an impressive force, while being all over the place, unpredictable, creative and destructive. After ‘Avant Gardener’, evoking so vividly a gardening cardiac malaise in the middle of a heat wave, she covered the Breeders’ ‘Cannonball’, but she also played The Lemondheads’ ‘Being Around’ during the encore, showing more love for the 90’s.
At this point, Courtney was more and more talkative, chatting with the crowd with a large smile and a cute Australian accent, ‘What are you afraid of?’ asked someone, ‘What am I afraid of? Fuck!’ ‘I’m afraid of nothing,… but I’m afraid to die’, she finally said, before playing the playful ‘Pickles from the Jar’. She asked people to scream with her in the mic with her, noticing a guy who was wearing a homemade ‘If you’ve got a spare half a million’ shirt. Then, ‘History Eraser’ was simply epic, she jumped on the drumset, breaking everything but her neck (at least I hope) for a grand final, in a very grunge-y, furious and careless abandon. It was so raw and crazy that I am sure she impressed everyone in the audience.
But Courtney Barnett is certainly not here to impress, after all, she had just screamed ‘Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you’ during the hilarious ‘Pedestrian at Best’ and its ravaging rhythm. During the show, there was anything but disappointment and this evening did a lot to build the legend for me. With irresistible and witty lines like ‘Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey’, delivered with a disarming natural, she transforms the ordinary into extraordinary with a rare humbleness, but she is the anomaly that a lot of people may have already put on a pedestal.
Setlist (not entirely sure)
An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)
Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party
Cannonball (The Breeders)
Pedestrian at Best
Being Around (The Lemondheads)
Pickles from the Jar
a nightmare that becomes a dream
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