Courtney Bar­nett Fes­ti­val Hall, Mel­bourne

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - Sarah Smith

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

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