Courtney Barnett played the Vogue Theatre downtown this week on the tail-end of her highly anticipated tour. Of course all opportunities for live music is highly coveted these days, but Courtney certainly has a voracious fanbase in the city, proven all the more by the fact that the venue changed last minute from the smaller Commodore to meet demand. As the mouldering auditorium of the Vogue steadily filled out for this hot ticket, the collective sentiment in the room was delight that the fave artist was even able to leave the continent at all to be here performing.
English-born American musician Bartees Strange had the honour of opening the show, the frontman preceding the rest of the band and starting a haunting, echoey guitar piece which picked up as his four bandmates made their way out of the wings. The brilliant drummer came in punishing the skins and a wall of guitars filled out the already powerful sound. The band pulled no punches, rocking har and putting their whole bodies into the sound with each kicking tune. Their musical inspirations varied from 80s synth, as a skilled keyboardist underpinned the rock lines with righteous wailing and wahing of the keys, to hiphop/R&B grooves in flashy “Kelly Rowland”, to a cover of The National. The great warm-up set went out with speedy, complex guitaring, ending with a mad array of sound, the frontman scrubbing the guitar overhead before hucking it down onto the floor of the stage. No half measures here, just full-on fusion rock, chaotic but pure.
The stage was cleared of Bartees’ clutter of cables, pedals and seeming scores of guitars to prepare for the main event. The stage quickly dissolved into an intimate living scene, with rugs the Dude would be proud to own, and an assortment of lamps arranged in symmetry along the panels of white fabric draped from the black background. The setup could almost be read as a comfort blanket when stepping out to a first tour back after so many artists remained confined to livingroom live streams over the past couple of years as their only performance outlet.
The new album she’s touring has seen Barnett take a decidedly slower pace, metered and reflective, unsurprisingly subdued in an era of bad news. The Australian songstress has always had an uncanny ability to reflect society in her art, her lyrics often made up of found phrases that make up the flotsam of daily life, finding beauty in the mundane and outrageous alike. While it’s still chok-a-block with signature lyrical witticisms, Barnett shows bravery in this new effort to let songs breathe with longer musical interludes, although the record only sits at just over 30 minutes. After years of anticipation for new work, Courtney gently reminds us right in the album title that Things Take Time, Take Time. Her body of work is a credit to her unique songwriting gift and this new album complements it nicely.
There was an explosion of excitement from the crowd as the singer took the stage, excited to hear what new tracks and old favourites she had in store. Though a seated show, the lower level shot straight to their feet and remained there for the entire show to sway and bop along with the music. Barnett opened with the laid back tones of “Avant Gardener”, recounting a particularly unexpected allergic reaction, grabbing the audience to before testing the waters with newer tracks, the first being “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight”. It’s an endearingly naive number, like something pulled from CB’s high school notebook and resurrected in her songwriting maturity, introduced simply as a love song.
I saw Courtney a few years back touring Tell Me How You Really Feel and the running theme was that of a young woman grappling with finding her way in the world, full of inward reflection. I noticed a marked shift with this album, as it focuses largely on her relationships with others, well and truly looking outwards, sometimes quite literally in the voyeur-like debut single “Rae Street”. She continued to dispense love and passion for her personal connections in the sweet “Sunfair Sundown”, singing “I don’t want you to be alone.” For a singer that leaves her heart on her sleeve, it’s hard not to read into her personal life with this slight change of tone.
Fun, colourful and swirling lights elevated the warm feeling of the concert, throwing out good vibes as new and old tracks came forth. The lighting throughout was sublime, simplistically clever, blending colours, movement and the warm glow of the houselamps into a very effective visual experience. The ensemble was somewhat stripped back from when I saw her last, the stange near bare as Courtney played her lefty guitar, flanked by a bassist and drummer on a basic kit. You didn’t miss the additional layers of instrumentation, however, as the set was decidedly less hard-rocking than on previous tours, the basic set-up well suited to these more folk-influenced songs. Courtney’s vocals rang out crystal clear showcasing her perfectly imperfect crooning and when the minimalist band needed to turn up the volume for bangers like “Elevator Operator”, the sound was anything but lacking.
And when she Barnett wanted to strip things back, taking a break from shredding the guitar momentarily to tap on a cowbell for “Turning Green”, the sound was equally rounded and enjoyable. The track delivered a shimmeringly fresh surfy riff and saw Barnett dispensing sage advice en masse like a sage heart-to-heart. The love-in continued with a further new track “Here’s the Thing” that hits home for anybody who’s contended with being away or apart from loved ones in recent times. Talking of “small thrills that get me through the day until the next one” is truly a relatable sentiments for many of us where simple pleasures become something to grasps onto for dear life. It’s a romantic song to squeeze your partner too (or perhaps long to do so if they aren’t to hand!) In the same vein, was the subsequent “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To”, full of more pandemic wisdom that surely rang true for the crowd.
As well as getting to see the softer sides of Barnett’s often sharp edges, we also got to see her human side during the complex web of lyrics in “History Eraser” as she, whether out of practice or exhausted on this, the last date of her tour, flubbed the words. “Shit, I need a teleprompter,” she joked, mid-song, taking it in stride and vamping before finding her place once again. She’s nothing if not likelable and, closing out the formal set with the incomparable “Pedestrian at Best”, Courtney Barnett cemented that she is nothing but pedestrian and clearly a voice of this era. Even put up on a pedestal, she could never dream of disappointing her adoring Vancouver fans.
After a standing ovation, she came back again for a last few songs. For all it’s differences, one undeniable similarly between this show and when I saw her in 2018 was her starting with a cover in encore, and not just any cover but one that seems to highlight where Barnett’s current thoughts lie. Back then is was “Everything Is Free” by Gillain Welch, again underscoring her anxieties for taking her place in the world. This time is was Arthur Russell’s “I Never Get Lonesome”, relating clearly back to the themes expressed throughout the evening. I like this signature move of choosing covers, as it underpins her intersection between genres.
The evening concluded with track that’s stuck with me the most from Things Take Time, Take Time, which is “Before You Gotta Go”, vulnerable and pared back with sweet harmonics. You would be hard-pressed to find a more meaningful and emotionally intelligent night out, with the added bonus of exceptionally performed music that Courtney Barnett provides.
Courtney Barnet setlist
Avant Gardener If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight Sunfair Sundown Small Poppies Elevator Operator Need a Little Time Nameless, Faceless Turning Green Depreston Rae Street History Eraser Here’s the Thing Write a List of Things to Look Forward To Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party Pedestrian At Best
I Never Get Lonesome (Arthur Russell cover) Oh The Night