Live review: Courtney Barnett at Red Gallery, March 23

Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett - Credit: Archant

Courtney knows how to rock as well as write, says Alex Bellotti

Britain has a slightly mixed track record when it comes to judging Australian culture. On the one hand, we’ve welcomed Rolf Harris (bad) and Foster’s Lager (not actually Australian). On the other, we’ve largely got it right with Kylie Minogue, comedian Chris Lilley and now Courtney Barnett, the indie-folk newcomer who’s taking our music press by storm.

Considering her breakthrough hit was a song about an asthma attack (2013’s Avant Gardener), idiosyncrasy is a large part of Barnett’s charm and it’s evident within the astute, observational lyrics of her full-length debut, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.

I was intrigued though to see how her music would fare in a live show, where layers of distortion render most of the words inaudible, so I made my way down on Monday to Shoreditch’s Red Gallery, which was hosting a special launch party for the record.

Barnett’s fellow countryman, singer-songwriter Frazen A. Gorman, played a short set to open proceedings and seemed to win a few people over mostly through charisma and by looking like a young Bob Dylan. It was Barnett however who most channeled the folk legend with the album’s opening track, Elevator Operator – a jangly stream of consciousness ramble vocally reminiscent of Subterranean Homesick Blues.

This style is one that has come to characterise her laid-back drawl and it continued into lead single Pedestrian At Best, which ditched the ‘60s folk vibes for a rawer, punky growl. Wearing a loose, Kurt Cobain-esque Breton t-shirt (“my favourite shirt”, she later told me), she clearly has an affinity for early ‘90s American rock and it set the tone for a number of tunes that paid homage to grunge’s ‘loud quiet loud’ dynamics.

Without succumbing to that brilliant Beavis and Butthead line, “Why can’t they just play loud all the time?”, some of the build up did linger a little too long. There was however a nice break in the action with Depreston, a soft country number about moving in together where some of Barnett’s wit comes to the fore (“It’s got a lovely garden, a garage for two cars to park in – or plenty of room for storage if you’ve just got one”).

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Things quickly got heavy again with the strong alt-rock trio of Dead Fox, Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party and Debbie Downer (an ode to “shit friends”), culminating in the sprawling, epic psychedelica of Kim’s Caravan – perhaps the best example of her close musical bond with enthusiastic bandmates Dave Mudie and Bones Sloane.

Much like Nirvana, there’s a duality to how you enjoy Barnett’s music – on record her bookish literacy shines through, but live she seems far more concerned about making her audience jump into each other. There’s no doubt she’s onto something and you imagine it’ll set this year’s festival circuit alight.

Alex Bellotti