Review: Courtney Barnett – 21/11/18 – Northumbria Institute, Newcastle


Courtney Barnett and her band played the last night of their tour at Northumbria Students Union.  They play as if they have a few more continents worth of shows left in them…

It’s a great, vital set, showcasing the very best of an artist who over the last few years has always seemed to be in the background, coming up with good stuff with little fuss or fanfare.

She opens with ‘Hopefulessness’, a brooding song with a fittingly awkward title. It sums up the conflicted spirit of Barnett’s 2018 album ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ a sometimes defiant, sometimes joyous, sometimes troubled album.

Single ‘City Looks Pretty’ follows, and its chorus of ‘Sometimes I get sad, it’s not all that bad’ is Barnett in a nutshell – human, self-deprecating, subtly cutting. The band – a four-piece – are excellent.

‘Avant Gardener’, an early single about a panic attack while gardening and the first Courtney Barnett song I ever heard, is beefed right up. It manages to be even better than on record.

As well as being a very good songwriter, Barnett is a sparky, charismatic guitar player. Tonight has more squalling guitar solos than you would expect from the writer of those early EP’s.

Very little of the performance is quiet or dreamy or meandering, and that suits me just fine. For me, Barnett is at her best when she is heavier, more instant, more lyrically sharp.

Perhaps excluding the sleepy encore ‘Anonymous Club’, she is all of these for every song tonight. ‘Nameless, Faceless’, a Margaret Atwood-quoting single about the dread of walking alone while being a woman, didn’t fully click with me on the album, but here it is righteous and precise. One of the best moments of the night.

This gig confirms that Barnett’s early-90s-influenced sound has drifted over the Atlantic. She is now more like Nirvana covering Pavement than on her debut. It had a lot of Blur and even Oasis (honestly, listen to ‘Digsy’s Dinner’ or ‘She’s Electric’ and imagine them in a Australian accent and you’ll see what I mean) in its DNA.

‘Depreston’, a slowie which sounds genuinely worn out and melancholy, goes down an absolute storm. Oddly enough for a song about house-hunting in Melbourne suburbs. It is probably the night’s sweetest moment.

The very good support act, Laura Jean, comes on to add saxophone to a great cover of the Go-Betweens’ ‘Streets of Your Town’. Barnett has a perfect voice for covers. Some singers overdo it when they’re singing someone else’s material, or are too faithful and make you wonder what the point was. However in Barnett’s covers tonight she adds just enough.

‘Charity’ from the new album is exhilarating and triumphant, but as with much of the album, dig a little deeper and it is furious. Barnett follows ‘you must be having so much fun, everything’s amazing’ with ‘so subservient I make myself sick’. It’s like fellow left-handed Fender Jaguar player Kurt Cobain once he started giving songs sarcastic titles.

Main set closer ‘Pedestrian at Best’ is similarly brilliant and scathing. With Barnett herself just about as much the target of its venom as anyone else. And yet the warmth and charm of her earlier material is still very much there. After a mellower encore she closes with ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party’. ‘But’, she reassures the crowd, ‘they do.’




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