“This is officially the biggest crowd we’ve played for,” says Australian rocker Courtney Barnett with a grin, last night at Union Transfer. The crowd cheers enthusiastically. The show’s been sold out for weeks, after being moved from the much smaller Boot & Saddle, and those who actually snagged tickets are pumped.
But they’re not the only ones. Barnett too seems excited to play her first Philly show, on her first American tour, and seems to be taking her sudden success in stride. A 25-year-old Melbourne native, who burst into public consciousness last year when her double EP, A Sea of Split Peas, won rave reviews from the blogosphere and airplay on indie radio stations. Barnett went from Melbourne musician with a DIY label and a pair of self-released EPs—to an international “artist to watch,” whose witty lyrics and shaggy guitar lines have won the hearts and ears of thousands of listeners. Last night, Barnett proved the attention is well-warranted, as she crooned and raged through an hour-long set, drawn from A Sea of Split Peas and beyond.
Over the past decade or so, I’ve seen many buzz bands play Philly, “killing it” with their energy and passion. But I believe Courtney Barnett is special. Courtney Barnett doesn’t just write heavy, juicy guitar lines that wiggle their way into your brain and reverberate; she doesn’t just write breezy choruses that wash over you like sunlight. She writes songs that actually do these things, for sure…but also more. She writes with a wit that’s completely relatable yet somehow both scrappier and more elegant. She writes about the banal—doing laundry, or going to the grocery store—and she writes about the heartbreaking—broken relationships, aimless lovers who don’t or can’t listen. But mostly, she writes about things that are real—and manages—in the small, personal details—to tap into something universal.
Listening to Courtney Barnett on record, you get the sense that she’d be awesome to hang out with. Seeing her live, you are absolutely sure. To start, she looks like every awesome girl I know in South Philly, clad in black jeans, boots, and a boxy tee—and between sets, she jokes sheepishly about her fly being down (it wasn’t) and hums a few bars of a Triffids song at audience request. But mostly, she remains focused on the tunes, letting the music do the talking.
She kicks off her set with Bowie-inspired rocker “David,” bassist Bones Sloane’s bouncy bass grooves adding forward momentum, before transitioning to “Canned Tomatoes (Whole),” her guitar snarling as she softly croons the lyrics.
Beside and behind her, Sloane and drummer David Mundie (affectionately dubbed “The Courtney Barnetts”) provide tight, lively grooves, backing vocals, and plenty of swagger—especially on tunes like free-spirited anthem “Are You Looking After Yourself.” Singles “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” are easy crowd-pleasers, Barnett spitting out lyrics coolly—and “Lance Jr.” elicits some grins with its risqué opening lines. But the evening’s best surprise is a new tune: catchy, with a shuffle beat, and more of her trademark witticisms.
Barnett closes her set with a brief encore, playing another new tune called “Depreston” about the “very boring” town of Preston, Australia. (“If you’ve got a spare half-million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding,” she croons, always penetrating.) This might be her first Philly appearance, but I have a feeling it won’t be her last. Armed with a killer band, a palate of new ideas, and her very Courtney way of doing things…Courtney Barnett has all the goods to make it big. We’re excited to see what she comes up with next.
Courtney Barnett | Photo by Rachel Barrish | rachelbarrish.com