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Concert Review: Courtney Barnett

Concert Review: Courtney Barnett

Barnett sold out the 800-person capacity Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan last week on the strength of her critically lauded new album.

(Photos: Surprise Truck)

Two minutes after Aussie rocker Courtney Barnett took the Bowery Ballroom stage alone for the first of three straight sold-out shows, my preconceived notion that her verbose, deadpan take on everyday life would not translate well to the live setting appeared disappointingly accurate. The southpaw strummed her guitar and strung together words – lots of words – on “Canned Tomatoes (Whole),” all of which seemed a touch dull and made me reflexively hope that something–anything–would happen. Then something erupted. Barnett’s bassist Bones Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie joined her on stage, and within seconds the trio erected a tower of noise, with the band’s namesake as its chief architect. Barnett’s brunette locks whipped through the air as she jerked backward and forward with her guitar. My skepticism erased, I spent the next hour and 15 minutes on the crowded bandwagon.

Barnett sold out the 800-person capacity Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan last week on the strength of her critically lauded new album, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. The album received near universal praise upon its release for its witty diction and grunge and jangle pop fusion. Yet, hearing the album live, Barnett’s predisposition to rocking the fuck out made the recorded product sound stripped down by comparison. That’s not to put down her album – I’ve come around to it over the past week – but live, Barnett amplified her woes and disillusionment with screams and solos and enough headbanging to risk a sprained neck. Projected images playing behind the band, like a monster running through the forest on “Small Poppies” or the tiny hands crawling out of a larger hand during “Avant Gardener,” also accentuated her live show’s potency.

Lead single “Pedestrian At Best” served as an outlier, hitting like a ton of bricks in the same manner live as it did on record. When Barnett closed her pre-encore set with the single, the tall, rail-thin woman to my left, who spent the show as still as a statue, started dancing as if someone had found a lost remote and pressed her power button. The crowd, as a whole, was strangely detached for much of the night even as Barnett and Co. thrashed around onstage. Barnett didn’t seem all that concerned. She observed they were quiet but a good type of quiet before playing “Depreston,” a song whose absurdist chorus of “If you’ve got a spare half a million / You could knock it down and start rebuildin’” inspired a few people behind me to sing along.

It’s easy to imagine future crowds reacting to every song like this particular Bowery Ballroom crowd reacted to “Pedestrian At Best” or her cover of the Breeders’ “Cannonball.” By the time Barnett returned to the stage for her three-song encore – which opened with a lovely cover of the Lemonheads’ “Being Around” – she observed a more “vocal” audience. The crowd’s newfound enthusiasm for Barnett continued as they walked out the door. A woman standing next to me declared, “I am in love with her.” We all were by night’s end, even if we took a while to discover it.

    • Venue:
      Bowery Ballroom
    • City/State:
      New York City, NY
    • Date:
      05/19/15

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