I loved Courtney Barnett. I think I need to state that before I go anywhere else. She’s bright, clever and, to use her Aussie vernacular, ‘spunky.’ She writes intelligent, insightful pop songs that often read more like short, character-driven stories than traditional pop pap. She gave us a taste of what she was capable of with the excellent, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, (which has the sublime ‘Avant Gardner’ on it) and quickly followed that up with the wonderful, ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit,’ LP. The album proper has some bloody good songs, finely crafted tunes with economical guitar riffs and hypnotic keyboard hooks as well as a mighty fine rhythm section. ‘Dead Fox,’ in particular has an exquisite backwards guitar riff that lifts the song out of the humdrum and into a whole different world of wonderfulness. I was keen to see how they’d pull this off live.
Wulfrun Hall is a decent sized venue and a step up from the stages they’d have played before the success of, ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.’ It wasn’t full but there was a decent sized crowd, I’d say six to seven hundred people. The band came on and opened with, ‘Avant Gardner,’ which was ok. It lacked the rolling subtly of the recorded version, and the guitar was fighting against everything else, but I thought, ‘Hey, it’s the first song.’ They then launched straight into, ‘Dead Fox,’ and my heart sank. My thoughts on how they’d pull off that gorgeous backwards guitar riff were quickly answered: they wouldn’t bother. In this age of technology, it wouldn’t have been difficult to pull off live, but they thought, ‘Fuck it, we don’t need it.’ They were wrong. Without the riff the song fell into a glam rock driven dirge, (we’d had to listen to Sweet before they came on) and left me feeling cheated. I don’t go to see bands expecting them to sound exactly like the record, that would be naive, but I do expect them to try. I felt like walking out, but I stuck with it. 40 minutes later I’d had enough and as I was leaving a steward asked me if I was coming back in, ‘No bloody chance.’
Courtney doesn’t have a great voice, but she doesn’t need one. Her songs are written around her strengths, clever lyrics and simple, compelling melodies, all of which were lost under a mush of drums, bass and guitar. In fact, the bass was so loud it hit you like a kick in the throat every time the drummer stomped along. A friend who’d heard her performance at The Green Man Festival summed it up perfectly, ‘…the subtleties of the recorded songs drowned in a sea of grunge.’ There was no subtlety last night just an almost wanton destruction of something quite beautiful. It was like Van Gogh smearing shit over one of his sunflower paintings and then standing there with a big grin on his face. I realised that the songs were only working when I played the guitar and keyboard parts in my head and by the time she got to, ‘Elevator Operator,’ I’d had enough.
It all got very, ‘Emporer’s New Clothes,’ for me. I kept asking my wife, ‘Why are they cheering? It’s bloody awful.’ (There was a hardcore of a hundred or so fans down the front who cheered anything – ‘Oh my God, she just flicked her hair!’) You may think my standards are too high, but they’re not. I’ve seen a lot of bands over the years, and live performances are usually a treat, not torture.
So thank you, Courtney Barnett, but no thanks. I work hard for my money, and I won’t be wasting it again on someone who doesn’t give a shit about their work let alone the people who come to hear it. It’s not as if it can’t be done. There are lots of three piece bands over the years that have created great music, both in the studio and on stage, but you’re not one of them. With that in mind, how hard would it have been to bring in a second guitarist/keyboard player? I’ve never left a gig feeling angry before and even now, the morning after, I’m still fuming. That’s £30, 40 minutes and 30 miles of road I’ll never get back. Your performance was: Pedestrian At Best.