Live Review: Courtney Barnett @ Royal Albert Hall – 4th June 2018

Courtney Barnett’s performance was first supposed to take place at Manchester Academy but the venue had double booked with another act. Albert Hall couldn’t be a more suitable replacement as the former church’s acoustics and Gothic architecture creates a uniquely intimate experience to perfectly accommodate her haunting and introspective second album.

The evening begins with Barnett’s support act, Loose Tooth who she both discovered and signed to her own ‘Milk! Records’ label. The Melbourne three-piece have a charming quirky stage presence as they interact with the crowd for a ‘group selfie’ and play an impressive selection of slacker-rock from their upcoming album. This move of using one of her own label’s acts seems to exemplify Barnett’s attitude as a lone visionary after creating her breakthrough album in her living room and has continually beaten to the sound of her own drum.

Before Barnett’s scheduled 9:15 entrance, the crowd begin an enthusiastic chant of ‘Courtney’ and ‘Pedestrian at Best’s chorus ‘put me on a pedestal’ which implies she has built up a dedicated cult following. Dressed like a mourner and her fellow Aussie Nick Cave, Barnett walks on stage all in black with a pair of black heeled boots and hints her following performance will be suitably intense.

Barnett’s debut has been defined as feminized slacker-rock which has been compared to both Mac Demarco and Linklater’s debut film ‘Slacker.’ Whereas Linklater panoramically used the camera to observe various slackers during a single day, Barnett’s album is similarly a series of vignettes or short stories centred on eccentric characters in her native Auckland.

Barnett nervously announces that her latest album will be played in its entirety which seems suitable as the shoegaze and garage-rock driven sound of her sophomore album is a bold departure from her debut. The sound seems to sonically represent a departure from the comedic vignettes of Australian life as she both meditates on her own struggles with anxiety and homosexuality. This bold departure implies that the record is perhaps best experienced in its entirety as a monolithic work in her back catalogue.

The set begins with ‘Hopelessness’ which opens with a tender solo vocal that both reflects on contemporary politics (no one is born to hate) and her own depression (your vulnerability, stronger than it seems, you know it’s okay to have a bad day) which really does sound remarkable in the church.

The lights flicker a crimson red against the stained-glass windows and every head begins an entranced nod as they attempt to balance the guitar’s descending wave. This also seems to foreshadow Barnett will be in control, the hypnotic witch in her black get-up with every fan enchanted under her spell during tonight’s proceedings.

The set continues into the single ‘City Looks Pretty’ which is a particular upbeat break from the morbid opener as she combines a fuzzy guitar solo with elements of dream-pop and a catchy chorus. The album’s later songs are all performed such as the indie-rock ‘Need a Little Time’ and later punk ‘Nameless Faceless’ as she astutely expresses her bemusement at contemporary gender attitudes – ‘Men are scared that women will laugh at them… Women are scared that men will kill them.’

The set also a really impressive lightshow as she is surrounded by what appears to be four traditional searchlights and is illuminated throughout by a combination of fluorescent purples and hazy greens. Following her recent struggles with anxiety, it’s really heart-warming to see her on such a ‘pedestal’ but there is a distinct feeling that she is more comfortable out of the spotlight as she endearingly escapes into her own little world and stares into the ground during guitar solos.

Barnett closes the first half of the set with ‘Sunday Roast’ and announces that she will be playing some previous tracks from her breakthrough album. Beginning with ‘Avant Gardner’, many of the previous stagnant limbs begin to move as it seems that the majority of the crowd had attended for the debut.

As the lights dim and Barnett leads a sing-along of her slowest song ‘Depeston’, I noticed that the diverse range of demographics in attendance is truly surprising. There are several groups ranging from The Quietus-reading ‘hip’ middle-aged parents to a group of Hispanic exchange students to skater teens and indie girls in floral dresses who clearly idolise Barnett.

Each member dances, smirks and joins in the surreal self-aware moment of singing to Barnett’s wry observation of budgeting and not buying coffee from trendy baristas – ‘now we got the percolator, never made a latte greater, I’m saving 23 dollars a week.’ This seems to perhaps imply that Barnett’s ability to combine sardonic razor-sharp observations of contemporary life with catchy melodies has a clear wide appeal which will only find further success in the future.

Following Barnett’s slacker debut and garage-rock driven sophomore record, I genuinely can’t wait to see her continual progression over the next few years.

Aaron Stretch

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