Courtney Barnett Festival Hall, Melbourne
Earlier this year, Courtney Barnett stood in front of a small room packed with close friends and media at her independent label’s unassuming HQ in the north of Melbourne. Glancing out from under her shaggy mane, the softly spoken singer sighed with relief, thanking those present for their support. That night, Barnett played her new record Tell Me How You Really Feel from start to finish for the first time. Despite having shot to worldwide fame upon the release of her debut album in 2015, back in her hometown, Barnett, it seemed, was still just one of us.
But it’s a different Barnett (pictured below) who walks on to stage at Festival Hall. In its unadorned grunginess, the large rectangular shed lovingly nicknamed “Festy Hall” is an unforgiving space that can so easily expose an imposter.
Flanked by her bandmates – bassist Andrew “Bones” Sloane, drummer Dave Mudie and keyboardist Katie Harkin – Barnett enters to a rockstar welcome, playing her biggest hometown show at a venue that hosted the Beatles on their 1964 tour of Australia.
Barnett flashes a sideways grin at the screaming fans, slings her Fender over one shoulder and launches into Hopefulessness, the dirgy opening track off Tell Me How You Really Feel. The song builds like an explosive force, the band – with hundreds of shows together under their belt – locking seamlessly into a manic jam. Live, it has an added ferocity, Barnett guttural in her delivery. The contrast to her poppier work is sharp and, for an instant, with Barnett’s lanky figure contorted over her guitar, she cuts a silhouette eerily similar to Kurt Cobain. It’s a moment that recurs throughout the night: as she shreds on Small Poppies, and during an especially visceral Nameless, Faceless that sounds heavier and angrier than ever.
Barnett’s performance, like her writing, is full of light and shade. Even her sunniest-sounding songs are often Trojan horses for darker explorations of the human condition. Tonight, the mood swings wildly as the easy breezy Courtney of her debut album butts up against the world-weary Courtney of Tell Me How You Really Feel. The juxtaposition is stark, and effective. For all the palpable joy in the room, one of the night’s most arresting moments comes as Barnett, uplit by a single red spotlight, growls out the opening lines of I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch.
Before playing the “very old” Lance Jr, Barnett queries whether anyone here was at her first-ever show at The Empress, a Melbourne institution that no longer functions as a live music venue. The question is not really meant to be answered. It is a nod to her hometown. Courtney Barnett is about to head out on her biggest global tour – but she remains one of us.
Touring the US and Europe to November