What was perhaps most remarkable about the (outrageously grand) Somerset House venue on Wednesday night was the sheer diversity of the crowd: all ages had gathered to see Courtney Barnett. 

After an extraordinary 24 months, this wide-ranging fan base (from children to retirees) is a testament to Barnett’s superlative gift for down-to-earth poetry – as well as her unique talent as a rhythm guitarist.

“Both acts exercise a charmingly conversational singing style”

The evening began promptly with support from Bill Ryder-Jones. Formerly of The Coral, Ryder-Jones was relaxed on the large stage, witty and self-effacing. On multiple occasions, he paused between songs to assure us that he was aware that we were all here to see Barnett. “That’s why I’m here too. But I’m getting paid for it”, he said.

Despite his protestations, Ryder-Jones’ set was a pleasure. Personal highlights were the disarmingly sweet opener, ‘Catharine and Huskisson’, and ‘Satellites’, which built into a crescendo of churning, distorted guitars, further rousing the merry crowd.

The only jolt to the care-free atmosphere came when – in accordance with the strict schedule of the American Express sponsored event – Ryder-Jones was informed that his set had to be cut short by one song. Time is money, I suppose.

A minor hiccup, which was easily forgotten amid tracks like ‘Two to Birkenhead’, of which Barnett herself has simply said, “I can’t express how much I love this song and this album and this guy”.

“Framed by ‘Depreston’, my formerly grim memories of hours passed in Preston train station’s waiting room have been glossed with a romantic sheen”

Happily, the main event proceeded with little delay. The CB3 (Barnett and her band; bassist “Bones” Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie) strolled on stage nonchalantly, nodding a humble greeting before launching straight into ‘Dead Fox’.

Appearing consecutively, the two acts were a pleasingly coherent combination. What is particularly appealing about the writing of both Barnett and Ryder-Jones is the affectionate attention they give to their hometowns (Melbourne, Australia and West Kirby, Merseyside, respectively). To add, both exercise a charmingly conversational singing style, enhanced by the fact that neither makes any attempt to dilute or ‘Americanise’ their native accents.

A few songs in, Barnett asked the crowd, “Anyone here from Preston, UK?”, proceeding to dedicate her meditation on Melbourne house-hunting to Lancashire’s very own. Framed by ‘Depreston’, my formerly grim memories of hours passed in Preston train station’s waiting room have been glossed with a romantic sheen.

“What she withheld in conversation, she made up for in wildly spirited guitar playing”

The crowd had well and truly thawed by this point; with each new song the singing was louder, the dancing more feverish. As a performer, Barnett is modestly endearing. Her chat was minimal, but she was warm and gently sarcastic.

What she withheld in conversation, she made up for in wildly spirited guitar playing. Barnett plucked and tore at the strings of her guitar with an infectious fervour. The grungy distortion of ‘Pedestrian at Best’ sent the venue into a frenzy, as did the propelling rhythm of ‘Elevator Operator’, both prominent fixtures in last year’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

Each track came complete with quirky backdrop animations, which were particularly vivid during a dark performance of ‘Kim’s Caravan’, which – as the night drew in – descended into an enchanting tangle of fuzzy guitars and strobe lights.

All bases were covered. We heard 2016’s single, ‘Three Packs a Day’, Barnett’s homage to ramen noodles. Die-hard fans grinned as they sang along to ‘Lance Jr’ from A Sea of Split Peas. The CB3’s rendition of the Grateful Dead’s ‘New Speedway Boogie’ even made an appearance, fading smoothly into the biting ‘Out of the Woodwork’.

“The atmosphere accelerated for ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to The Party’”

The encore was dazzling: as the crowd hushed, Barnett arrived back on stage alone for what she announced was a rare performance of ‘Ode to Odetta’, a sweetly unpretentious love song. 

We were re-joined by the band for a final time as the atmosphere accelerated for ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to The Party’. The title of Barnett’s closing song offers a helpful piece of advice which is both blunt and (probably) true. True or not though, I’m pretty glad I showed up to this particular party.

Maddy Hay

Image courtesy of Bruce via Flickr (CC)

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