wed 07/12/2022

Courtney Barnett, Brighton Dome review - canny, poetic singer shows she can rock out with the best | reviews, news & interviews

Courtney Barnett, Brighton Dome review - canny, poetic singer shows she can rock out with the best

Courtney Barnett, Brighton Dome review - canny, poetic singer shows she can rock out with the best

Tight Aussie three-piece swing easily between the fiery and the contemplative

In non-rocking mode

There’s a disconnect between Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett on record and in concert. On record, especially on her latest album, her dryly-stated, touching emotional lyricism is to the fore, but in the live arena you’re as likely to be presented with a scorching rock goddess, playing with her fingers and no plectrum.

Her grunge assault on 2013 single “History Eraser”, for instance, has proper garage heft, initially coming on like a Cobain firestorm then settling to something akin to fellow left-handed axe hero Jimi Hendrix. She doesn’t talk much between songs, but she sure plays a mean guitar.

Before her arrival we’re treated to a set by self-proclaimed “black, feminist punk band” Big Joanie, a London trio nominated in the new Alternative Act category at this year’s MOBO Awards. They play a half hour set, talk of “the intersection of our oppressions”, and receive big love from the Brighton crowd. The sound is understated for “punk”, more like early New Order, especially bassist Estella Adeyeri’s moves. They are clearly growing into a stage persona and are over-polite as a live experience, but some of the songs have legs.

Courtney Barnett, clad in white tee and jeans, opens with “Rae Street”, its wonderfully doomed couplet “Well, time is money, and money is no man’s friend,” delivered perfectly in her Lou Reed/Jonathan Richman deadpan. Longterm backing band, Bones Sloane on bass and Dave Mudie on drums, look like hairy Melbourne bar jam band lifers, and are completely in synch with their frontwoman. This unit is tight. They're also looking great, uplit in purple and pink, Barnett parading back and forth in front of three vintage amps, her hair channelling Ron Wood and Mick Ronson.

Second song “Avant Gardener”, her debut single, sets out her stall, a lyrical classic, but the gig picks its way around all three of her albums, starting with feistier material, then settling to a brief mid-set slowie section, beginning with her initially coffee-centric “Depreston”, with its kernel of country, which instigates a shy audience sing-along to the “If you've got a spare half a million/You could knock it down and start rebuilding” closing chorus.

The crowd are all ages, a happy mingling of sexes, more given to gently swaying and watching than shaking their moneymakers, but they do gather a head of steam as the night progresses and the band close in on cuts such as current album highlight “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight”, and a raucous, almost throwaway, take on well-loved single “Pedestrian at Best”.

Like KT Tunstall and Sinéad O’Connor, Courtney Barnett is a woman whose elemental live presence is a big part of her appeal. Much as her debut album, especially, captured her raw charm, playing live she reminds of the real gutsiness that she's capable of. Having closed the main set with a funky “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party”, however, the encore turns to her downtempo side.

She plays newie “Oh the Night” band-less, her guitar sounding like Billy Bragg attempting reggae (in a good way!), then her compadres join her and Dave Mudie’s malleted drumming becomes a key component to “Sunday Roast”, before they close with the drum machine-led 2021 single “Before You Gotta Go”, a drone-adjacent version, with Barnett cutting shapes on her instrument that once again demonstrate what a virtuosic rock guitarist she is.

Yet it’s her words and how she sings them that set her apart. The output of far too many 21st century singer-songwriters is restricted, rendered dull, by pleading heart-on-sleeve vulnerability and cod-soul emoting which they imagine equates to wrenching human authenticity. Barnett, on the other hand, seems to draw from a rich well of 20th Century singers, from Leonard Cohen to Ian Dury and beyond, who knew that real richness lies in poetry, specifics, commentary, observation, and speaking with a true voice.

But she doesn’t say much at the concert’s end. Just stands with her guitar held balanced on her head and looks at us, smiling. She has already done more than enough. So we whoop and cheer as she deserves.

Below: Watch the video for "If I Don't Hear From You Tonight"

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