Courtney Barnett has amassed a huge following over the past year with her heavy handed approach to irony-ridden folk storytelling. Her straightforward manner of songwriting follows her everywhere as she tours with only a three piece band and doodles the designs for all of her merch and album art. This week at Metropolis, Barnett showed just how fun she can be in front of a rowdy crowd with a deep sense of love and admiration. The near 90-minute set served as a perfect rundown of her whole career including her newest single “Three Packs a Day” as well as older hits off of her first EP Sea of Split Peas. Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the night was just how well received her set was. Having gotten the chance to see her last summer at the Newport Folk Festival, I felt like the massive Metropolis crowd served her music well, with each and every lyric and guitar lick being supported by riveting cheers and rousing sing alongs.
Barnett is not a big talker. Her set moves quickly leaving only time to yell “Thanks!” and switch guitars in between each song. Despite the seeming lack of words to say to the audience, Barnett’s lyricism has never lacked depth. Her opening song “Dead Fox” is writhe with vivid imagery and funny pokes at strange societal tendencies. Beginning with a line about a friend’s obsession with organic vegetables, Barnett asserts “A little pesticide can’t hurt,” writing off the benefits of this trend. The rest of the song plays with the idea of nature versus mankind, later weighing the dangers of sharks and cars:
“More people die on the road than they do in the ocean
Maybe we should mull over killing cars instead of sharks
Or just lock them up in parks where we can go and view them”
Lyrics aren’t necessarily the main take away from live shows considering the fact that the audience has already gotten the chance to digest them beforehand. However, Barnett’s ability to hide intelligent points about society in her sunburst vocal melodies adds to the entertaining nature of her songwriting. This combined with the accuracy of the audience’s sing-along just goes to show how big of an impact Barnett is having on her fan base as they are clearly spending a lot of time listening to her. One of the night’s highlights was the sing along during the chorus of “Depreston” when nearly every audience member said the words “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding.” Hearing the dry sense of humor obtained by Barnett’s ode to the suburbs sung by hundreds of people was a particularly surreal experience.
Another important aspect of Barnett’s lyricism is her storytelling. Her first hit “Avant Gardner” narrates a specific occasion when Barnett passed out while gardening. The slightly apathetic vocal delivery works together with the sarcastic tone of the lyrics: “It’s a Monday/It’s so mundane/What exciting things/Will happen today?” Barnett later makes fun of herself when a nurse tells her that she’s clever because she can make music, replying “I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying.” The careful detailing Barnett uses to specify this event gives the audience a glimpse of how she views the world making the song very personal. When played live and presented to the audience it really brings a sense of intimacy especially to her more dedicated fan base.
Musically Barnett really brought the house down. Many of her songs begin with really simple grooves that build into hugely explosive moments. On “Kim’s Caravan,” the bass drones along as Barnett’s guitar remains non-specific. As the song picks up, Barnett’s vocalizations become elongated until she yells “So take what you want from me” repeatedly leading into a guitar solo. At Metropolis Barnett spent much of her guitar solo time in fits of rage sometimes ripping her guitar to shreds kneeling on the ground. It is through these killer guitar solos that Barnett justifies her three piece setting. Her energetic stage presence, shredding guitar solos, and full throttle vocalizations leave little room for anyone else on stage needing only rhythm section to help further the impact of her perfectly blunt songwriting strategies. “An Illustration of Loneliness” was also particularly powerful at Metropolis. The catchy melody after the words “thinkin’ of you too” was played by bassist Bones Sloane with his distortion pedal. During one of the choruses, Sloane unleashed the fury of his distortion pedal bringing the song into head-banging territories before being re-grounded by the “thinkin’ of you too” vocal idiom. Although the recording of this song is relatively short and sweet, the brief moments of smashing in the live setting take into a different place.
Courtney Barnett is a truly brilliant songwriter and her slightly punk tendencies make for an epic presentation in the live setting. Backed by a mellow drum and bass team, Barnett single handedly faced the expectations of a rowdy Metropolis crowd with raging energy and power. Her nearly worldwide success is a result of her undoubtable artistry and I think a lot of people are really excited to hear whatever she has in store next.
-Review by Donovan Burtan