It was a thoroughly Australian affair at The Palais Theatre last Friday night. Melbourne heavy rock muses The Smith Street Band lent their dry-witted frontman Wil Wagner for the night to perform the opening solo support slot. “It’s a real honour to perform on a stage that has had such illustrious acts over the years,” he gushed. “People such as Bob Dyan, and my personal favourites, Lano & Woodley!”.
Declaring rather delightedly that his whole family were in the audience, Wagner set about making his set an intimate affair, with songs about his younger but maturer sister and growing up in the ‘burbs of Box Hill. His band’s popular hit ‘Surrender’ got big love from the audience, as did all the Melbourne references, from local city trams to getting drunk on a park bench.
Sydneysiders Cloud Control took the middle spot with their upbeat pop grooves, all dressed in full white attire. Consisting of chief vocalist and guitarist Alister Wright, singer, keyboardist and tambourine player Heidi Lenffer, bassist and backing vocalist Jeremy Kelshaw and drummer Ulrich Lenffer; the four-piece outfit brought a bunch of instruments with them to liven the mood. Warm, high-pitched harmonies dominated their set, grounded by plucky telecaster solos and a consistent drumbeat bop. Relaxed and quirky, everyone – including awkward frontman Wright – was more than enjoying themselves, from the didgeridoo-like coos on hit single ‘Gold Canary’, to the instrument swapping antics of their end songs ( Wright and Kelshaw swapped spots & guitars).
Dressed in skinny jeans, a striped slouch top and Fender Jaguar slumped over her shoulders, Courtney Barnett strolled onto a stage that was now all hers. Adjusting her guitar knobs through floppy hair, there was an air of Kurt Cobain about the nonchalant singer-songwriter’s looks, equipment and demeanour. Well, at least until she opened her mouth. Then all similarities dissipated. The mood setting opening line of ‘Elevatory Operator’ dropped, and we knew exactly where we were. It was a singalong for the anti-suicide chorus, “Don’t jump little boy, don’t jump off that roof, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, you’re still in your youth, I’d give anything to have skin like you”.
Flanked by her CB3 boys – Bones Sloane on bass and Dave Mudie on drums – the sound was loud and at times, appropriately and deliberately discordant, with big drumbeats and piercing guitar. The hits came thick and fast, including ‘Avant Gardner’ and ‘Dead Fox’. Some serious black and white strobing effects lit up ‘Small Poppies’s’ desperate and raspy refrain, “I don’t know quite who I am, oh but man I am trying / I make mistakes until I get it right / an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye / I don’t agree with that, why can’t we just talk nice?” whilst ‘An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)’ got the audience relishing the opportunity to sing with and over their homegrown hero.
The backdrop graphics were the most impressive thing I’ve seen at a show to date. From white, yellow and black toucans snapping at each other, to fluorescent armchairs, fluid forest landscapes and lava lamp-like coloured blobs, every song had a unique mood and picture, and Barnett popped against her groovy designs. Not overly talkative but pleasant enough, the 28-year-old smiled at her bandmates during erratic solos and guitar changes.
New single ‘Three Packs a Day’ (about two-minute noodles, not ciggies) was well received, but it was ‘Depreston’ that got the biggest reaction. It’s still slightly baffling that a song about house-hunting in the suburbs in Melbourne could get such huge success overseas. However, when the sweetly delicate Fender Telecaster notes kick in and Barnett’s deadpan delivery effortlessly turns prosaic into poetry. It’s almost too easy to see why.
The laid-back raconteur looked a little uncomfortable in the sweeping, sit-down venue, but soon puts wrongs to right by encouraging her worshipping audience to get on their feet and dance. ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party’ got pretty much everyone up and about, particularly when the popular, quarter-life crisis chorus dropped; “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home!”.
Mudie pummelled the drums, upright behind the distinctive CB3 sign in primary blocks and colours, whilst Sloane synchronised head bangs with Barnett as she screeched her way through raucous hit ‘Pedestrian at Best’, before disappearing backstage in swarm of feedback noise. After being left standing, with ears ringing profusely, CB3 emerged once more for their epic encore – ‘History Eraser’. Thousands of fans singing, “In my brain I re-arrange the letters on the page to spell your name” was a brilliant way to end the evening. It’s official – Barnett live is a must for any music loving Melbournian. And then we all caught the 96 tram home.