Dot writes: last night Ken and I went to see Courtney Barnett play at Whelan’s. This was special not just because she’s very good but because this was the first time we’d ever been to a gig together, even though we’ve been a couple for almost twelve years. (We’ve managed to attend some contemporary dance performances.) Anyway, she was my pick – I’d come across her in my erratic explorations of Australian music over the last year – and happily Ken liked her. Or, rather, liked them, since, although Courtney Barnett writes, gives interviews and is discussed as a solo artist, she plays with a band, currently a trio, and speaks in the first person plural, as in “Have you all bought our album?” (Big cry from the crowd of “Yes!”) There’s a nice chemistry between the band members and they look as though they could all be cousins, which is maybe something that happens when you spend a long time in a van with people.
We were going to the gig with friends and the arrangement was to meet them in a pub opposite the venue beforehand. However, the friends were running late and I wanted to make the most of this rare chance to hear live music, so we crossed the road in time to catch part of the support act, Fraser A. Gorman. At first we both regretted it, Ken because we’d left a craft beer pub for somewhere with a truly terrible selection (the day was saved when some bottled O’Hara’s was spotted behind the bar), and me because, well, I was initially unimpressed by Fraser. It was a solo performance with guitar and intermittent harmonica, and it’s quite hard to wow people who don’t know your songs with that slender equipment. But he had a humorous way with the crowd and after a bit he played a number I’d checked out earlier, and we decided we liked him after all. Here’s a nice video of him exploring a carpet.
Then there was the usual hiatus before the main act, during which our friends turned up and the crowd increased. The crowd was tall. Courtney Barnett is popular with tall people. I felt I was pretty lucky in my view of the stage, all things considered.
So – it was a blistering set. I’ve read other reviews that say this: the sound is much heavier live and this band really rocks. They opened with “Elevator Operator”, which is also the first track on the recently released album. Courtney isn’t a loquacious front woman, saving her more expansive eloquence for her lyrics, and she has a dry way with transitions between songs: “Hello! That was the first song. This is the second song. We’ll say hello after that one too.” The second song was “Anatomy of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” and I don’t recall if she did say hello after it or not, but they went on pretty rapidly into “Lance Jr.”, a song from her first EP. The bass line and chord progression remind me of a Nirvana song I haven’t pinned down yet (“Lance Jr.” is the first song in this live performance – see what you think). Even though it was only the third song in the set Courtney and her bass player, Bones, flung themselves into a big instrumental rock-out before coming back to the verse.
Essentially they played most of the album, not in order, plus some key songs from the earlier EPs. A particular stand-out was “Depreston” (“this song has only two chords, which is…average”). It was maybe the quietest song in the set and the crowd’s voices (including mine) emerged surprisingly sweetly over the pared-down instrumental line to sing along with the chorus. Although Courtney Barnett incorporates a lot of specifically Australian details in her lyrics, this reflective song about viewing a house that’s simultaneously a property in a boom market and a place of human memories has an obvious resonance in an Irish context: “If you’ve got a spare half a million / you could knock it down and start rebuilding.” “Avant Gardener” also went down a storm, and I found I knew most of the words.
The gig was sold out and there was a happy energy in the enthusiastic crowd. “Did you see us last time?” Courtney asked. A small but appreciable portion of the audience shouted “Yes!” “Trick question! This is our first time here.” Clearly these people would have liked to have seen her before; maybe some of them had, somewhere else. She’s nice. She took big swigs of water between songs because “my mum told me to drink lots of water on tour.” I was trying to work out what was on her t-shirt; our friends pointed out it was Torvill and Dean!
The main set finished with the recent single, “Pedestrian at Best”; you could feel it coming for a while as it was the big song that had been missing earlier. For me this was the only slight disappointment of the evening, because although it’s another big rocker the best thing about it is the clever, ranty lyrics, and they were a bit hard to hear in the sheer mass of noise; the sound was up painfully loud at this point. But it was certainly a cathartically shouty closer. Then in accordance with convention the band returned for an encore (“actually we do know some more songs”): “Aqua Profunda” from the album, and what Courtney described as “a cover of a cover”, her version of the Divinyls covering the Easybeats’ “I’ll Make You Happy“. This was a really satisfying finish to the show, offering a slight change of style that still fit well with the rest of the set and showed off how she can sing. Singing your own songs is one thing, and she often goes for a trailing-off, half-spoken style that prioritises the words over the tune and has, also, a down-to-earth dryness about it, a possible suspicion of the emotionality and indulgence of full singing; but the fact is she has a strong voice, deep and throaty, and I probably like her cover of “I’ll Make You Happy” more than the Divinyls’ one.
In sum: we had a great time listening to Courtney Barnett. I’ll be buying the double EP “A Sea of Split Peas” to add to the album (I got “Avant Gardener” as a single). There’s a huge buzz around her at the moment and it’s thoroughly merited. She writes clever songs and performs them with passion, and she doesn’t feel the need to dance around in her bra, which is also good. Happy punters here.