Courtney Barnett live at Paradiso

July 6, 2016
Words: Jasper Willems
Pictures: Willem Schalekamp

At her sold out Paradiso-gig yesterday night, Courtney Barnett triumphantly proved her sophisticated, charming brand of post-grunge and garage rock has a mass appeal.

The rise of Donald Trump and the unfolding of the Brexit-crisis might have taught us one thing. It’s that the truth no longer prevails in the Western world. In a different era, people might have marched the streets in revolt instead of passively looking on in bemusement and confusion.

Even though politicizing Courtney Barnett is a futility in itself, her eloquent songs do somewhat reflect our coping with detachment facing the rapid upheaval in world order. With her golden smile, sleepy eyes and endearingly clumsy joie de vivre, she is one of those special artists whose music reflects her personality to a tee.

A song like the gleaming Depreston for instance, has a deftness and clarity not many songwriters can match. The way Barnett achieves a poignant depth between her wry witticism feels very much in tune with our daily humdrum realities. As witty and self-effacing as her songs are, their furtive complexity simmers through her live performances.

At a sold out Paradiso yesterday night, she proved her sophisticated, charming brand of post-grunge and garage rock doesn’t just resonate within niche circles. It resonates with every single human being. Look no further than the mixed bag of people who decided to show up. Old people, young people, male, female, black, white, gay, straight. Any way you slice it, this is without question a more diverse crowd than at your average alternative rock show.

From the outside looking in at least, Courtney Barnett has made an almost seamless transition from indie heroine to rock paragon. Wonderfully enough, she appears to be taking everything in stride with the same happy-go-lucky, easy-going disposition as when she first hit the radar with the jejunely-titled The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas.

It was around that time when I last saw Courtney Barnett and her bandmates Bones Sloane (bass) and Dave Mudle (drums).  It was a show at Crossing Border Festival in The Hague, which turned out to be quite an awkward night for Barnett. She reminisces about it with Jeff Tweedy in this Under The Radar-article. You could sense an awkward divide during that show: Three scruffy-looking Aussie musicians playing in front of a crowd of prim, proper bookish types. That was, admittedly, a bit strange.

Even before Barnett took the stage at Paradiso, the spectacle after the storm of breakthrough album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was palpable. She now has a serviceable crew to do soundchecks for her, and a line of guitars waiting on the left side of the stage. The moment the first booming notes of Dead Fox cast aside any doubts her days as indie rock darling are over.

Courtney Barnett @ Paradiso

Courtney Barnett @ Paradiso

Which by all means, feels just and right. Still, it does take some getting used to hearing the power trio of Barnett, Sloane and Mudle ante up with full-blown arena rock fervor. The sheer punch they create between the three of ’em upends Barnett’s lyrical zing a bit. But Barnett has circumvented this nicely by adding colorful, story board-like visuals as backdrop. During Dead Fox they played the song’s music video, triggering the visitor to zero in on Barnett’s sly, meandering narratives.

The tight, high-octane chemistry between the three musicians is basically a voice of its own. Pedestrian At Best’s anxiety-riddled thrill ride (with cues to the rampant drive of Nirvana’s Drain You) drives the crowd’s frenzy to its absolute apex. Subsequently, Barnett and her band turn the contemplative Kim’s Caravan on its head with a manic intensity that leaves the audience aghast.

Instead of saving her most popular anthem (Pedestrian At Best) for the encore, she masterfully wields it like a battering ram that busts into our souls. Even more so than most of her songs, Kim’s Caravan’s a brooding, candid and wholly introspective slow-burner. Lyrical stinger I’m just a reflection/of what you really want to see hits home even harder after being pounded into submission.

The song climaxes with a sonic outburst, betokening the emotional weight Courtney carries as an artist with doubts and insecurities of her own. Yet here, she still finds the cogency to become this prism to our own feelings. It was a triumphant, empowering moment, one that demonstrated Barnett’s most underrated ability: her evocative guitar playing. This was evident during the plodding punch-drunk waltz of Small Poppies and the wistful Out Of The Woodwork as well.

Even before her raucous encore, it felt like Barnett made a succinct, albeit clear point by gathering herself for a minute between that arresting rendition of Kim’s Caravan and quirky fan-favorite Avant-Gardener. It felt like concise reminder that life comes in all shapes and sizes.

One moment you dismissively cluster your innermost feelings, but the next could be you laughing away a distressful asthmatic panic attack. Sure, feeling detached or incredulous by the things you can’t control is part of the everyday. But in experiencing shows like Barnett’s at Paradiso, there’s comfort in simply being thankful for the view.

Watch Courtney Barnett’s new video for Elevator Operator below:

Thanks to Willem Schalekamp for providing pictures at such short notice.

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