Courtney Barnett, East Brunswick All Girls Choir @ Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide 17/8/2018

Milk! Records label mates, the erroneously named East Brunswick All Girls Choir (there is a boy-girl-boy-girl line up) are up first with their slacker aesthetic. Charismatic singer and guitarist Marcus Hobbs punctuates the set with self-deprecating comments relating to why you shouldn’t learn to play guitar in between reverb heavy, howling guitar that suits the cavernous environs of the Thebarton Theatre perfectly. A 90’s Sonic Youth vibe comes to mind, promoted by Rie Nakayama on bass. While some songs are abstract noise of volume and voice, others are like alt country drone. One particular track is more the HolliesHe Ain’t Heavy than Radiohead’s Creep with the almost anonymous Rob Wrigley on guitar drowning out the rest of the band in feedback in the middle. Marcus endears the audience by saying he feels at home here in that “Adelaide feels like Bendigo with a beach”. I note Courtney Barnett and crew watching on from the right side of the stage and am reminded that this is the first night of their Australian tour.

After the well received support set, appropriately the first song for Courtney and her band is the opener from her latest album, Hopefulnessness. Bathed in red light like the album cover, playing guitar left-handed, I’m reminded of Paul McCartney before she rocks out like Kurt Cobain into the end of the song. The second song follows the order of the album and is a muscular version of City Looks Pretty. Similarly, Charity has a guitar crunch that was absent from the album and overall it seems her solos are less restrained than the recorded versions and she appears to be fighting the guitar while playing it. Courtney starts Need a Little Time alone and it is as though there is going to be an audience sing along but those in the audience joining her falter as the band comes in. What is obvious during this suite of songs from Tell Me How You Really Feel is that her observations of mundane everyday life have now evolved into something more thoughtful and contemplative, ranging from the reflective to the angry.             

In a break from songs from the new album, Courtney introduces us to the band, Katie Harkin on keyboards and guitar, with stalwarts Bones Sloane on bass, and Dave Mudie on drums, before taking off a shoe to remove a stone. The music resumes with the Hammond organ heavy An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York) which is followed by Avant Gardener. When the older songs are played they reveal a contrast in that for all the laid back vibe of these early songs, the newer songs seem to be over quicker although not feeling in any way rushed.

The set returns to Tell Me How You Really Feel with Nameless Faceless during which her guitar strap comes undone and Courtney smiles, soldiering on and soloing while a roadie rushes forth to reattach the wayward strap. Live, I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch is Nirvana via Neil Young, replete with effected vocals and an “evil” dynamic light show. Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence completes the track-by-track run-through of Tell Me How You Really Feel, although there is another song, Sunday Roast, a little later when a smoke machine is employed literally in perhaps an unconsciously metaphorical way.

Throughout the set, Courtney is like a puppet on strings held from above. While at the microphone there is at least one foot propped on toes and at other times such as during Small Poppies, she flails and jerks about the stage in the moment of a loose, physical guitar solo. Sometimes the guitar is held above her and it is as if she is holding it trying to pull it back down into her possession. With prominent keyboards,

Elevator Operator is transformed into a bar room boogie stomp. There is the unfamiliar to most but not incongruous cover of the Vetiver song Houses and at the start of Depreston another attempt is made by the audience to sing along before the band again join Courtney.

Following Sunday Roast, the embracing ambience of Kim’s Caravan is less Pink Floyd with the bass appearing more upfront than on Sometimes I sit and think, sometimes I just sit. As the song comes to an end, the band are silhouettes in flickering red, green and blue and Courtney performs a groaning guitar solo where the music and lighting come together perfectly like thunder and lightning. The Alt-J sounding History Eraser (what came first, the chicken or the egg?) ends the body of the set and in the interim before the encore, the audience chant a familiar catch call I have noticed in recent times: “One more song”. Adelaide, you are doing yourself a disservice. Just asking for one song is a limit you don’t have to specify or else that is just what we might get. It didn’t happen this time with Courtney and band returning to perform two lyrically contrasting songs. The first was the intimate Anonymous Club and then there was the transparency of Pedestrian at Best which is probably about self-doubt in a relationship but can also be read another way, especially in this live context with both performer and audience present, Courtney howling, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”. There’s a final thank you and she is last to leave the stage before Aretha Franklin’s Respect is played over the PA as the audience begin to leave, thematically fitting and a reminder of her loss the night before.

Live review by Jason Leigh

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