A cool glass of wine in hand, a few Saturday nights ago I found myself googling ‘Courtney Barnett gig review’ as I tried to prepare myself to see her live for the first time. I’m a solid Barnett fan, I like her music, her rambling, unapologetically Australian lyricism, and her down to earth disposition. However, I was hesitant to see her in concert for the one fear that niggles almost everyone who attends a live performance of an artist they really like for the first time – what if they suck? And Festival Hall, where Barnett was to be playing is a venue characterised for its shed-like, unforgiving nature, and its ability to expose many performers raw. The first article I found on my search for reassurance was a concert review by the DailyMail from Barnett’s Sydney show in August whose title read ‘The Rock Star Australia Needs…’. I could read no more of the article as it is a members-only story and I wasn’t about to pay $14 a month just to read the DailyMail when I could read any number of other free articles from better news sites, but nevertheless, I was reassured. And I had every right to be.
Barnett is striking on stage. Clad in nothing more than a white t-shirt and black skinny jeans she emerged to an appropriately deafening, rock-star-esque welcome from the crowd, which seemed to swell forward with energy upon Barnett’s appearance.
For an artist who has been open about her feelings of anxiety and self-doubt around her work, Barnett seemed effortless on stage.
Perhaps due to the presence of a familiar Melbourne crowd (Barnett spent many years living in Melbourne), or perhaps due to the fact this was not her first rodeo – Barnett gave the impression, as she adjusted her left-handed fender through her trademark mop of hair, that she was at home on the Festival Hall stage.
There was sparse conversation between Barnett and the audience, making it clear she prefers to let her music speak to the crowd. And there’s a smile on her face as she squares up to the microphone to begin the show with a powerful and drawling opening track, Hopefulness from her second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel. Barnett’s energy then seamlessly transitions from the manic ferocity of Hopefulness’ crescendo into a comparatively mellow but still upbeat City Looks Pretty.
Here, a surge of pride rushes through the venue, and there is perhaps a hint of it in Barnett’s voice as well as there is a collective understanding that the pretty city which Barnett sings of and calls her ‘home’ is Melbourne.
When Barnett does speak to the crowd, it’s intimate. ‘Does anyone live in Thornbury?’, she asks and is replied with a roaring cheer. Filled with too many voices for them all to belong to residents of the tiny intercity suburb, many people answer in excitement at the mention of a place they recognise by an internationally acclaimed artist. Barnett, in response, has a humble smile on her face as she announces that ‘…this song is set in Johnson Street behind the Croxton’ and that it ‘is for anyone who has asthma and anxiety’. The crowd is rewarded for its enthusiasm with the instantly recognisable Avant Gardner, followed by some of Barnett’s other past global hits, including Kim’s Cavern and Depreston.
The concert reached a blistering mid-point peak in Barnett’s critically acclaimed Nameless Faceless, and it is here Barnett starts to really come into her own.
People have described her onstage actions as similar to Kurt Cobain, staggering around the stage in an ecstasy, and sometimes seemingly unreachable and alien. But Barnett never truly alienates her crowd, her lyrics are too everyday and she is too good at changing the mood.
As she had already done earlier in the set, the energy seamlessly transitions into An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York), a very Barnett love song wherein an almost hypnotic fashion she closes the song repeating ‘I’m thinking of you too’.
And the rest of the concert continues in the same waves of energy, Barnett leading the audience through a heightened experience of the mundane, infusing an energy into the every day, a poignancy to house searching, the gardening, or a trip along the Epping train line. US writers have called her the ‘new Bob Dylan’ but I would argue that this is not the case, because Bob Dylan did not come from Melbourne. She closes the show with an encore of two of her old hits, Anonymous Club and Pedestrian At Best, as well as a cover of Everything Is Free by Gillian Welsh. In Everything is Free, Barnett’s flat voice rang out through the venue and in its simplicity seemed to make a promise to the adoring Melbourne crowd that she will always be in it for the music.
Barnett exceeded my expectations and I left Festival Hall having been turned from a fan into an admirer.
I am willing to grant the DailyMail this one, Courtney Barnett really is the rock star Australia needs, and she is more than we deserve.