Review: Courtney Barnett — Olympia Theatre, Dublin
“I don’t know what I was thinking; I should get a job. I don’t know what I was drinking; I should get a dog. Should get married, have some babies, watch the evening news…” So spouted Courtney Barnett strikingly in song, midway through her performance Monday night at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, playing one from her back catalogue off of 2013 EP A Sea of Split Peas.
Have some babies. Get a job. The words hung heavy in the air, echoing all-too-familiar sentiments for the twenty-somethings in attendance who, like myself, find themselves confronted regularly with the societal pressures of carving out an conventional path and job stability.
Indeed, Barnett confessed by way of introduction to the tune, “Are You Looking After Yourself?”, that its lyrics were taken verbatim from a conversation she had had with her caring but concerned parents. Committing one’s life to artistic pursuits is, for most parents, a frightening prospect indeed, and trying to make money while also pursuing one’s passions is a shared dilemma of this generation.
But Courtney’s reprisal of this track struck me so much because I got me wondering… If, back in 2013, this artist had succumbed and just settled down and got a sensible job, how deprived the world would be of such a rare talent! Having absolutely sky-rocketed since then with an award-winning debut album and international acclaim, Courtney Barnett gives inspiration to the hopeless dreamers among us, wandering way outside of the career track.
Making a far-too-brief showing in Belfast earlier this year at The Biggest Weekend festival, Barnett has been touring non-stop this year in support of her brand new and superb sophomore album Tell Me What You Really Feel. Fans were delighted to be able to catch a full-length performance by the Australian songstress.
Coincidentally (or not?) Barnett’s intercontinental friend Kurt Vile hits Dublin later this week, so it’ll be a great few days of music for Lotta Sea Lice lovers, and I’d be sad to hear it if Kurt and Courtney didn’t find the chance to meet up for a few pints in the Irish capital. Whether or not this tour date was enriched with a happy reunion, Barnett played with joy and lightness in a colourful and vital performance alongside her stellar band.
Opening up for Courtney on this tour is fellow Aussie, Laura Jean, a well-seasoned singer-songwriter with a quirky quiet confidence. While she introduced herself by sharing that she had just debarked a plane twenty minutes ago, her smooth, cool sound was anything but jetlagged as she sunk into a dreamy synthscape, emitting enchanting vocals. Standing solo on stage with just a keyboard and sax at her disposal, Laura recreated tunes from her latest album Devotion with the help of backing tracks and an unchained choral range.
This, her fifth studio album, marks a departure from the classical-inspired folk of past work and Laura Jean dives in the blissful dream-pop pool, paddling alongside the likes of Lorde, Tennis, and Lykke Li. Pulling impassioned expressions as she stroked the keys to kicking drum beats, the young musician filled the room with breathy and daring melodicism, soured only by the odd squeal of feedback. Laura’s affable and humble stage presence was enough to smooth over any imperfection over, however, the woman laughing in genuine disbelief during the eccentric “Lick Your Heart” as the crowd started clapping along spontaneously.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Jean declared cannily as she strapped on the saxophone for a smooth jazzy outro to her next piece. But there was no need for such modesty, as the audience went crazy every time her lips touched the mouthpiece. This escalated to the point that Laura was fully blushing and playfully paused mid-solo to utter into the mic, “Stop it!” and moments later, “I’m serious!” as the crowd just kept cheering louder and louder. “You’re making me feel very special,” she divulged before playing the final song of her set.
As the upper tiers of the Olympia filled out and the excited buzz wafted up to the rafters, it was obvious that we were in for something very special with the main event. With fairy lights draped around the stage and instruments, giving the space a backyard barbecue feel, Courtney and her band filtered onto stage. The audience maintained a hushed reverence at the first sweet and raspy strains of a soulful “Hopefulessness”, but started crying out as the slow drive kicked in and the song built to a climax.
The twinkling string of bulbs were quickly outshone by the stunning lighting accompaniments that perfectly matched the tone of each passing song. Barnett’s girlish yet arresting vocals soared through “City Looks Pretty”and the theatre was bathed in atoms of light with a colour-shifting curtain backdrop and brassy spotlights. She was electrifying as she grooved and strummed away, light pinging radiantly off of her guitar as she spun round and hoisted its body over her head.
Taking us through a day in the life (and mind) of Courtney with her personal and story-telling tunes—“Avant Gardener” recounting a particularly unexpected allergic reaction and “Depreston” depicting a day of unfeasible real estate shopping—the artist demonstrated her penchant for spinning tales of the fascinatingly mundane. Her latest single “Small Talk”, a bouncy little ditty with a tinkling piano line and cute vocal tics, stays true to her style, where snippets of conversation take precedence as lyrical structure and imbue a cozy humility on this down-to-earth rocker.
The set was perfectly curated and extremely leveled. In one moment Courtney looked ghoulish as her faced was basked in shadow with hectic flashes of light during the sickeningly catchy “Nameless, Faceless”, rolling into the heavy-hitting “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” where Barnett was a hair-raising goddess on the guitar, doubled over and flailing. In the next moment the band were plucking out a heart-warming rendition of “Sunday Roast” in a hazy sunset glow.
Laura Jean was welcomed back on stage to perform a duet cover of Aussie band The Go-Betweens’ “Streets of Your Town”, a perky and rambling jaunt. Nearing the end of the set, Barnett separated the diehard fans from the rest of the pack, daring them to sing along to the complex web of lyrics that is “Elevator Operator”. Each song was more enjoyable than the last and had the crowd overwhelmingly delighted, hitting on all the best-loved tracks and forging new favourites with their transfixing live renditions.
Coming back on solo for an encore, Barnett had the chance to showcase the mastery of her instrument and raw voice as she plucked out a beautiful cover of Gillian Welch’s “Everything is Free”. In her interpretation, it was evident that this tune is very close to Courtney’s heart and weighing on her mind, recounting the challenges facing musicians in the digital age to make an honest living. It would seem that the concerns echoed in “Are You Looking After Yourself?” are not strictly reserved for 2013 Courtney, but carry on. It is heartening, then, to have seen so many people buying tickets for this gig and still recognizing the value of what this talented individual does on stage.
Closing out with the incomparable “Pedestrian at Best”, Courtney Barnett cemented just why she deserves all the hype and adoration coming her way, proving that she is nothing but pedestrian and clearly a strong voice of this era. Even put up on a pedestal, I doubt she could ever dream of disappointing with such a professional and kinetic live show and a truly unforgettable evening.
Courtney Barnett Set List: Hopefulessness, City Looks Pretty, Avant Gardener, Need a Little Time, Nameless Faceless, I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch, Small Poppies, Small Talk, Sunday Roast, Depreston, Are You Looking After Yourself?, Streets of Your Town (The Go-Betweens cover), Elevator Operator, Charity, History Eraser. Encore: Everything is Free (Gillian Welch cover), Anonymous Club, Pedestrian at Best