This Courtney Barnett article was written by Suzanne Oswald, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Adam Skirving. Main photo by Rodrigo Mella.
Courtney Barnett received huge critical acclaim when her debut album ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit’ came out in March earlier this year, and rightly so: it is without doubt one of 2015’s best releases. Having played the Art School only a few months ago, she returns to Glasgow tonight to play the O2 ABC, bringing a bigger crowd who are keen to see what the all the intrigue behind Melbourne’s Barnett is all about.
It is immediately clear that Courtney Barnett is not a solo act; she is part of a three-piece band. The stage is set up very simply so that the bassist Andrew Sloane and herself are standing at opposite angles to the drummer, Dave Mudie. She may take centre stage on the record, but this is certainly not the case when playing it live.
In fact, the guitar, bass and drums trio make a lot of noise between them, and give the songs an added aggression when performing them together. The thrashing guitars, thumping bass and heavy distortion lend an extra abrasiveness to their garage rock sound which creeps into grungy Nirvana territory; something which is all the more accentuated by all of the shaggy hair-shaking on show. While the album’s main draw is Barnett’s witty lyrics, the emphasis shifts in the live show, with the ramshackle middle-8s and jamming outros giving the songs extra muscle.
The band fire through early favourites such as ‘Elevator Operator’, ‘Avant Gardener’ and the upbeat ‘Dead Fox’, the catchiest song you’ll ever hear about the GM debate, before a glimpse of gloomy melancholia on the bluesy ‘Small Poppies’. It is a real heartfelt moment, ‘I used to hate myself but now I think I’m alright’, which finishes with an extended climactic outro.
In the middle of the show, things do start to feel a bit samey but we are quickly shaken out of this by ‘Depreston’. It has to be said that the good parts of this gig are very good indeed. The song begins with Barnett alone on the guitar, allowing her wistful vocals to shine. It deals with the rising house prices in a Melbourne suburb, capturing the plight of her fellow twentysomethings who always seem to find themselves priced out of the property ladder. It clearly strikes a chord with the audience who can be heard belting out the contemplative chorus along with her, “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding”.
It is her ability to find profundity in the mundane that makes Barnett’s song-writing so special. Her dry wit is reminiscent of Mike Skinner or an early Alex Turner, while her brilliant eye for detail suggest a skill for observational comedy. In spite of this, she doesn’t have a huge stage presence, not going beyond the occasional “thank you” between songs; the self-deprecating style of her song-writing however, is not suggestive of a Turner-like swagger. Instead, the crowd is won over by her no-nonsense attitude, conveyed by her distinctive deadpan delivery.
With the gig hurtling towards a conclusion, Barnett declares that they have decided to make use of ABC’s disco ball, the biggest in the world incidentally, during ‘Debbie Downer’. Having been to countless gigs in this venue, it’s safe to say that I did not expect to see it being used for the first time during this one. However, it has a mesmerising effect which matches the upbeat song. ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party’ has the crowd pogo jumping, before the band launch into the opening riffs of ‘Pedestrian at Best’, the song which launched Barnett into the mainstream.
It sees the main set come to a raucous finish, getting the biggest crowd reaction of the night, as Barnett shouts “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you!” Judging from the reaction tonight, she certainly doesn’t seem to be in danger of doing that anytime soon.