I saw Courtney Barnett at the Enmore Theatre here in Sydney at the end of last month. She was magnificent, even more than I was expecting. As I sit and type this a couple of weeks later, I’m thinking it’s one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen.
It was my first time seeing her. Having become a massive fan in the last three years, and having watched lots of live performances of hers online, I’m aware of her reputation as a killer live act. But still, I’m not sure of the exact reason this show felt so triumphant. After touring the world for years in support of three amazing albums, is she now reaching some peak of greatness? Or is it always like this with her?
Or did it have to do with the apocalyptic times we live in and the fact that there were hardly any live shows for two years before this? True, it was the first time I’d been out since before Delta hit last June (not counting one Classic Album Sundays party I put on in November). It was effectively my first time out in an entire year. I’m pretty sure I would have thought it was a great show anyway, but it would be disingenuous of me to rule this out as a factor. Certainly a lot of other people in the room were feeling that kind of post-lockdown redemption, and that contributed to the amazing vibe.
But to be honest I wasn’t feeling anything like “we’re back baby.” For one thing I wasn’t that comfortable in the crowd with so few masks being worn. Masks are a no-brainer, as this report on COVID’s impact on the live-music industry makes clear. Despite the widespread idea that the pandemic is over, cases have been exploding here in Sydney and in New South Wales since the state government removed most restrictions and let it rip in December. There’s a jarring contrast between that prevailing narrative and reality.
I don’t know why I thought Courtney Barnett fans would be more switched on about mask-wearing. Because they’re more progressive than other music fans? Because Barnett’s music is so sensitive and humanist? I don’t know. Call me naive. It was disappointing.
Anyway, I wasn’t going to miss this show. I felt okay being there by myself for a relatively brisk two hours (unfortunately I missed the opening act, Alice Skye), at a pretty well-ventilated venue, finding space on the wall at some distance from other people, and wearing a P2. I had an amazing time actually, mask and all. Despite what a lot of people think, being conscious of COVID safety doesn’t mean staying home forever. Two years into this thing, with all that we’ve learned, I’m fine in public spaces as long as there’s some reasonable combination of moving air, distance between (vaccinated) bodies and masks. And I think these same principles apply to event production, not just how you choose events to attend. Longer conversation!
Sorry for the sidebar about COVID; but it’s not really completely off-topic either. Barnett’s new album, Things Take Time, Take Time, which was of course the focus of this show (I recently reviewed it here), is indirectly all about the pandemic. The very first lines on the opener, “Rae Street,” are about isolating at home, and she returns to that theme again and again on the album. In a larger sense it’s all about the anxiety, alienation and uncertainty we’ve all been feeling lately. “Light a candle for the suffering,” indeed. This made the show even more emotionally impactful.
Adding to the dystopian mood, I got absolutely soaked by a downpour on my way into the city for the show. The rain has been constant here for months — the result of a La Niña event supercharged by climate change. It’s caused multiple killer floods up and down the east coast (and it also caused the floor of the Enmore to collapse just a couple of weeks before this show). So I was feeling a bit miserable; but maybe that’s appropriate for a Courtney Barnett show if you think about it. I wanna go out, but I wanna stay home.
When I first heard Barnett I said she was like a genetic cross between Kurt Cobain and Gillian Welch, and I stand by that. Both of those contrasting qualities were on display during this show. She has the amazing charisma and the feral energy of Cobain. Despite being such a shy, unassuming person, who dresses as if you bumped into her in the street and hardly talks between songs, her voice has an undeniable power and magnetism that utterly commands attention; and watching her thrash around the stage as if possessed during the more rocking numbers is electrifying. On the other hand she also has the devastating songwriting and storytelling genius of Welch (here’s an essay about Welch’s masterpiece, Time the Revelator, that I wrote last year). Barnett writes songs that are somehow both anthemic and disarmingly down to earth. Her lyrics sound both poetic and off the cuff, like she’s just talking to a friend. Even when she plays a song you don’t recognize, as was the case for me a couple of times during this set, you know right away it’s a Courtney Barnett song the way the chorus grabs you as if you already know it deep down and the lyrics make you smile the first time hearing them. “Like a film you’ve never seen / Yet you still get that strange nostalgia / In the sentimental scenes,” as she sings on “Oh the Night.” I think it’s fair enough to say that her musical style is located somewhere between grunge and alt-country too.
Appropriately enough she opened her set with “Rae Street,” and it had the same effect here that it does on Things Take Time. From a deceptively laid-back beginning — a simple drum machine pattern, an almost casually strummed guitar, and a weary shrug of an opening line (“In the morning I’m slow / I drag a chair over to the window”) — it steadily gained power until it became ringingly anthemic, its “Time is money” chorus rising majestically up into the atrium of the Enmore. Then the increasing intensity of the rambling Dylanesque closing verses, so that it felt like a peaktime number by the time it was through.
The sound in the Enmore was terrific, and I especially appreciated the way the synths and drum machines played by Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa (also the co-producer of Things Take Time) sounded on the system. That blend of Barnett’s rootsy alt-rock with electronic elements is so striking and effective — in general, the fusion of rock and electronic has always been a key to my heart — and it really serves the low-key simplicity of Barnett’s new songs. It gives them an almost dreampop vibe, which is a wonderful stylistic turn for Barnett to take.
The third song was “Avant Gardener,” one of her most popular tunes, getting the crowd loose and singing along early and elevating the mood in the room palpably. This one means a lot to me because it’s about an anxiety attack, something I can very much relate to, though I haven’t been hospitalized for it as Barnett has (most recently during the first COVID lockdown in Melbourne, sometime before recording Things Take Time). I’ll never forget the first time I heard it; I was cleaning my kitchen and it made me kind of freeze because it was a bit too real. Like the song’s narrator, I spend a lot of time in my garden as a coping mechanism for anxiety; and I’ve had many dissociative moments out there while pulling weeds or picking cherry tomatoes. (Barnett often sings about domestic things; and I spend a lot of time doing domestic things and listening to her; I think that’s not a coincidence.) It was wonderful for this kind of frightening, intensely lonely experience to be turned into something almost celebratory in a live setting. There was something therapeutic about singing along with the entire crowd to “I’m having trouble breathing in” — as if there was joy in sharing our trauma and alienation. I was almost in tears by this point.
“Small Poppies,” from the debut LP, soon followed, and this was another transformative moment for the show. The downtempo, bluesy feel at first felt like a bit of a breather, Barnett’s funny verse about putting off mowing the lawn while dealing with a painful breakup sounding like a sarcastic sigh. But then it kept building and building over six minutes and slowly burned into something out of control, with Barnett at first yelling and then howling on the thundering choruses as her guitar exploded into the upper atmosphere: “I’ll make mistakes until I get it right! An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye!” Her tribute to the slow-paced yet incendiary sound of early-90s Seattle, and far more powerful live than on record.
I’m on record as saying that Barnett doesn’t shred on guitar — that she has more in common with let’s say Johnny Marr in that her guitar playing is amazing and distinctive and full of character, but that it mainly serves the material: she plays exactly as much guitar as a given song needs and no more. That may be the case a lot of the time, especially on the folkier numbers, but a song like “Small Poppies” proves how limited that theory is. Her solos on that number were breathtaking, so intense and ferocious and huge, such a perfect expression of the tormented but cathartic mental state the song describes. “I used to hate myself but now I think I’m all right!” Give me this over any technical shredder any day.
In general I can’t understate how brilliant her guitar playing was throughout. I’ve always loved the sound of her guitar — the particular voice it has — and it was such a pleasure to hear it live and reverberating in the Enmore’s atrium. Unlike previous tours, she was the lone guitarist on the night, and that minimalism and space for her guitar to breathe made it even more apparent how crucial it is to her whole presentation. As wonderful a songwriter as she is, if she wasn’t accompanying herself, it would be different. I loved the range she showed. At times she creates gentle, droning, shimmering layers of sound, especially on the newer songs. In particular I love “Turning Green” with its droning Velvet Underground feel. At other times she unleashes a massive wall of noise and feedback. Those different modes enhanced each other: the latent potential for noise made her restrained, gorgeously melodic playing on the quieter numbers like “Depreston” even more stirring.
“Depreston” came not quite halfway through the show, and of course got the whole theatre singing along. Possibly her most beloved song, it’s emblematic of Barnett’s genius for making the mundane (a house inspection in a rundown suburb in Melbourne) into the universal (generational angst over housing inequality; the way you might be struck out of nowhere with deep feeling for a stranger you’ve never even met just by glimpsing a piece of their life). She covers so much in two verses and one chorus, from joking about lattes preventing millennials from buying homes to the Vietnam war. I remember the first time I heard the lines, “It’s got a lovely garden, a garage for two cars to park in / Or a lot of room for storage if you’ve got just one,” I did that thing where I was kind of laugh-crying. Because it’s so personally, specifically relatable for me, tapping into all the feelings my wife and I went through when we were buying our house. But also because of the way she delivers it, like she delivers so many of her lyrics, making it sound conversationally casual but also profound. Hearing it live didn’t so much remind me of this emotional first reaction as it made me re-experience it.
The set was so well-planned. “Elevator Operator” followed by “Pedestrian at Best” came about two-thirds of the way through, when it would have been more predictable to finish or encore with those ones. That wasn’t anticlimactic at all but actually created a feeling of sustained climax for the last part of the show.
(There’s a minute of shaky footage of “Elevator Operator” shot by me in the Instagram post embedded at the bottom of this article.)
It was so cathartic dancing and shouting along to “Pedestrian at Best” (when I got home I’d lost my voice a bit). Rock at its best is dance music. Though Barnett doesn’t get overtly funky, she makes music you want to move your body to — even the more folky or country-ish numbers have a certain swing to them.
She really does feel like some type of rock redemption because it’s grunge, it’s country, it’s blues, it’s postpunk, it’s all these things at once in kind of an effortless way; and it’s about anxiety and heartbreak and feminism, but it’s also loud and so fun to dance to and sing along with.
I loved the moody light show, the way it often left Barnett shrouded in darkness and shadow. That shadowy look lent a certain majesty to the show, and entirely suited Barnett’s themes of anxiety and depression. The living-room lamps that adorned the stage were perfect, glowing softly in those shadows, reminding me of something Jane’s Addiction would have done back in the day. And yes, it all felt as momentous as a Jane’s show used to feel back then.
When she did encore it was with two relatively subdued songs from the new album: “Oh the Night,” an old-fashioned downtempo rock-and-roll ballad, and “Before You Gotta Go,” which seemed like a bit of a parting kiss to her fans: “Before you gotta go, go, go, go / I wanted you to know, know, know, know / You’re always on my mind.” It’s been a new favorite of mine since the LP dropped and it was wonderful to have it ringing in my ears as I headed back home. “Don’t you know I’m not your enemy? / Maybe let’s cut out caffeine.” That was a real boss move — just having the swagger to encore with new songs and know the crowd is going to eat it up and sway back and forth and hold up their lighters.
I don’t know how to fully explain how an artist can have such swagger and command a big room like that while singing these incredibly vulnerable songs about COVID isolation and gardening and debilitating anxiety. Maybe somewhere in that paradox is rock and roll, man.
Photos by Ashley Mar, courtesy of Tone Deaf. Feature image photo by me. Poster by Viv Miller