About a year ago, Courtney Barnett was playing Sunday afternoon shows at The Tote. Solid, yes — but child’s play compared to what she’s doing now. This week alone she’s sold out The Corner Hotel four times. Thursday night was the first of these shows; with Barnett sidelining her expressed “nervousness” to deliver a performance that made sense of her unusually rapid, albeit, totally seamless musical ascent over the past year.
An early show, Fraser A. Gorman assumed the stage around 8 o’clock. The curly-haired local and sometimes-collaborator with Barnett played mostly new songs along with his band — a collection of Melbourne-centric musicians including You Am I’s Davey Lane and Eagle and the Worm’s Jarrad Brown. These were simple, melodic, and for loss of other words, blues-tinged rock songs; all sung with Gorman’s characteristically wordy and Australian infliction. What appeared to be a homage to generations of Australian rock, Gorman’s set was a lax, tight, and a warmly-accepted introduction to the evening.
Next came D.D. Dumbo; the stage alias of Castlemaine native Oliver Perry. That he comprised the ‘odd one out’ on the lineup that evening, nestled between two pub-drenched quartets, did little to dampen his performance or the audience’s reception of it. In fact, much of Perry’s set verged on entrancing. He stood alone amongst a melange of instruments; using a loop pedal with astounding ease in lieu of a band. Keys, synth, and a 12-string Danelectro wove together loop after loop as he played tracks including his somewhat-recent single ‘Tropical Oceans’ and ‘In The Water’ — a song, he bantered, that received its title from its opening three words. His vocal performance was aptly tame; providing a pristine garnish to the gracefully orchestrated instrumentals. A pleasurable set from an artist whose past year has been similarly colossal to the headline act’s.
Barnett trailed her band onto the stage — who on the evening consisted of Dan Luscombe (The Drones) on top of her regular rhythm section of Bones Sloane (bass) and Dave Mudie (drums). Banter was omitted as the quartet launched immediately into the first song ‘Lance Jr.’; its opening line, “I masturbated to the songs you wrote, resuscitated all of my hopes” serving as an staunch reminder to all those present of the performer’s rasping, witty, and dauntingly-honest lyricism; almost every word containing value of seismic proportions. The band wove between new and old songs, seldom stopping for breath in between. They played Barnett’s 2013 EP Sea of Split Peas almost in its entirety; ‘Lance Jr’ preceding ‘Are You Looking After Yourself’, and the twanging, lazed-out anti-ode to “buzz bands” and their labels, ‘Don’t Apply Compression Gently’. Barnett’s vocals; as pitch perfect as they were characteristically ‘dead pan’, overlaid dozy, nonchalant guitars and rigid bass lines as the set rolled on. The audience watched on in immobile silence as Barnett and co. played a set more refined and inherently comfortable than those of gig’s past. Relentless touring has moulded the band’s performance to no ends — and the audience’s unbroken transfixion was a testament to this.
It felt like less than an hour before Barnett announced the band had “one more song”. Of course, it was ‘Avant Gardner’, and of course, ‘History Eraser’ hadn’t been played yet, so her announced conclusion fooled few. But a break prior to the last few songs was justified, as Barnett had more or less yelled along to the wordy chronicle of a Monday morning anxiety attack and subsequent ambulance ride to the hospital. Despite the fact that ‘Avant Gardner’ probably contains as many words as the average rap song; much of the audience mouthed along in a lazy haste — the lyrics ingrained in the minds of many since the track reached anthemic local status following its 2013 release.
A beautiful rendition of the new and unreleased ‘Depreston’ comprised the first song of the encore. Barnett re-entered the stage solo, and alone played the nostalgic, two-chord ode to Melbourne’s inner-north. Without a band, her vocals sounded crystalline as she picked away at her guitar – the witty and warmly deprecating lyrics evoking giggles from the audience at the end of each line as she described house-shopping in Preston. Mudie returned to the stage to perform ‘Pickles From The Jar’; an upbeat ode to Barnett’s partner Jen Cloher, before the full band returned to finally perform ‘History Eraser’ — a jiving, shouted recount of a vivid dream in which she writes the best song she’s ever written, dances with sweet senoritas, and as the dream concludes, sings a Triffids song to her friend in a taxi. She snuck a couple of bars of ‘Pleasure and Pain’ by Divinyls into the end of the last song; a cheeky, departing example of something that both Australia and growing crowds overseas are quickly coming to realise:
Courtney Barnett is in a league of her own. She created it, and it’s all hers. Period.