Live Review: Courtney Barnett @ Festival Hall, 01.09.18
Courtney Barnett: “Tell Me How You Really Feel” Tour
Festival Hall, Melbourne
01 / 09 / 18
Words by Rachel Iampolski
So much of Courtney Barnett is synonymous with Melbourne. Her lyrical references and song content, her style, the label she runs with her partner Jen Cloher – an equal Melbourne music legend – Milk! Records, which looks after so many other fantastic local bands like Loose Tooth and Hachiku. So, when she was performing her home town show – her last performance on a national tour that followed the release of her second highly-acclaimed album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, and one month out before she takes off on another global tour – expectations were pretty high! Thankfully though, in what I’m sure comes as no surprise to fans, Barnett bloody delivered!
Playing to an eager and packed Festival Hall which, despite its often scoffed-at lack of ambience, has hosted some seriously big names in its lifetime, from The Beatles to Frank Sinatra, Red Hot Chilli Peppers to, more recently, Patti Smith (who was joined by Barnett to help perform one of her songs, last year no less). None of this got the best of Barnett, who managed to deliver her classic brand of unassuming but powerful, grungy intimacy that long-term fans would have experienced back when she was playing smaller local venues. That same vibe translated to the stage – pretty humble but charming, with a few fairy lights strung across the instruments, some red velvet curtains and vintage style spot lights (think minimal, steampunk circus vibes).
The chilly hall was warmed up by the ferocious East Brunswick All Girls Choir – no easy task, because the hall felt more like an igloo than a sweaty, moshy music venue – who have been touring with Barnett throughout the country and also feature on her record label. After an intermission, with crowd eagerness growing, Barnett casually took to the stage, joined by her regular talented crew of bandmates – Andrew Sloane on Bass, Dave Mudie on drums and Katie Harkin on keys and second guitar – and the gang wasted no time busting into the opening track, both of the set and the latest album, ‘Hopefulessness’. This was a fitting start to a set list that accurately captured Barnett’s diverse repertoire (despite how relatively young it is) including stand-out latest releases such as ‘Nameless, Faceless’ and ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’ through to powerful covers including Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything Is Free’ and, of course, crowd favourites such as ‘Avant Gardener’, ‘Pedestrian at Best’, ‘History Eraser’, ‘Kim’s Caravan’ and ‘Elevator Operator’.
The entire performance effortlessly alternated between Barnett’s more folksy performance style and much heavier, darker elements – sometimes with scream and metal references – through raspy vocalisations and purposeful shredding. In fact, if you have never seen Barnett perform live, the way that she often slips into this metal style, and how easily and naturally it happens, might even take you a bit by surprise. But a really good surprise – like a Kinder Surprise but for rock and roll fans! The crowd is receptive to this, as they should be too, because this is where Barnett really shines – 0ddly, her songs feel so much more satisfying when they are belted in a frustrated fashion. It makes everything feel heavier but lighter at the same time. It creates this feeling that yes, everything is just a bit f***ed (in the world and in much of Barnett’s subtly topical music), but we are all here screaming about it together, or getting lost in the sound of Barnett’s masterful but rough shredding and singing.
This dance between heavier styles and lighter, more tongue-in-cheek references throughout her performances perfectly mirror the continuous contrast in the style and themes that she explores in her lyrics, collectively making for an overall melancholy, strangely familiar, feeling. None of this is more evident than when – in what was by far my personal highlight of the evening – she began preforming ‘Depreston’, a poignant but almost folksy song about house hunting in Preston at an estate property and the storm of emotions it can elicit. It is a song that tugs at the heart strings at the best of times; but when performed live, especially when the whole crowd sings the bleak bridge – If you’ve got a / Spare half a million / You could knock it down / And start rebuilding – well, I nearly cried.
(Don’t worry guys, I didn’t actually cry, but a lump was for sure forming in my throat … though some of that was probably at the realisation that half a million is probably not even enough anymore and that I’m not ever going to own a house in Preston. I guess I’ll just be listening to this song on repeat forever instead.)
And that’s just the bloody beauty about Courtney Barnett. Even though her music has such a wide-reaching resonance – having already sold out one international tour and about to go on another, even bigger one to what surely is an even hungrier global audience – she is still so quintessentially Melbourne, taking so much reference form this city, its suburbs, its people and the memories she has made here. Her hometown show really felt like a celebration of how much she has achieved and grown in her career, and the audience that has grown with her, and it instilled a feeling of assurance that no matter how big she gets, Barnett will always be a local girl and Melbourne doesn’t run the risk of losing her as it does so many great music ‘exports’.
Seeing Barnett live is always such a joy, in part because it fills me with so much local pride and smugness – about just how much creative talent Melbourne seems to breed, Courtney Barnett of course being a shining example of this – but also it makes me full of hope. I’m gutted when it becomes clear the show is ending because I am not ready for it, but after some phenomenal encores I leave, as I usually do after seeing Barnett, full of hope that everything is going to be okay! That the world is full of incredible people, young and old (my God, seeing kids rock out to Pedestrian at Best on the side of the mosh with their parents makes me clucky as hell!) who come together to relish in incredible music made by incredible, honest, women who are complete bad-assess in their vulnerability and talent. Courtney, please never leave, Melbourne needs you!
Photo of Courtney Barnett provided by publicist.