Four years ago, Courtney Barnett turned up for The Great Escape, playing well past midnight. For me, it was the highlight of the festival, her infectious exuberance matched by the quality of songs at her disposal. Then, although very much the singing frontwoman, she was on the left of the stage, part of a threesome that literally rocked. Tonight, she’s very much centre stage, an acknowledgment that, even though she has the same bassist and drummer (along with fourth member Katie Harkin), she is now the star of the show.
Despite her public persona that comes across as a little bit frustrated and disinterested with the attention she’s been getting these last few years, on stage she has no qualms. It’s the music after all, and more than most indie stars, she really does seem to revel in playing in front of people.
With two hugely admired albums at her disposal, plus a sprinkling of EPs, and stand-alone tracks, she delves into this relatively small back catalogue, beginning with her and just a guitar for the trickily entitled ‘Hopefulessness’, where she languidly intones: “Take your broken heart / Turn it into art”. She does just that with a spirited run through of songs from her recent album Tell Me How You Really Feel, such as the warming mid-tempo grooves of ‘City Looks Pretty’, the jangly pop of ‘Nameless, Faceless’, and the raw punk of ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’.
Other tracks from her proper debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, get an airing, including the joyful rocker ‘Elevator Operator’, the downtrodden, head-nodding friendly ‘Small Poppies’, and the spunky FOMO truth that is ’Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party’.
‘Avant Gardener’ was the song that really got Barnett attention away from her Australian homeland, and tonight it still stands up brilliantly. As good an example of her storytelling skill, which combines the mundane with the profound, the funny and the serious, aided by a mesmerising rhythm and groove, her guitar work expressive, and textured, and always on point.
Barnett also surprises with a couple of excellent covers, including her fellow Aussies The Go-Between’s ‘Streets of Your Town’ (which also features tonight’s support act, and fellow Aussie Laura Jean, playing sax), and Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, which suits her languid style perfectly. There’s some lesser known tracks such as ‘Small Talk’ an off-cut from Tell Me How You Really Feel, as well as a short and impromptu ‘Billie Jean’, the band striking up the Michael Jackson classic following a joke from Barnett about audience requests.
Barnett’s music is both melodic and muscular, adeptly mixing up the raucous with the contemplative which, while captured well on record, really comes into its own on the live stage. Her big sounding lo-fi aesthetic works on stages big and small, a testament to this outstanding songwriter, who gives it her all, looks like she’s always having a ball, finishing with the wittily self-deprecating and seriously rocking ‘Pedestrian at Best’, the sold out crowd smiling and looking satisfied.