Courtney Barnett definitely isn’t sweating February’s Best New Artist Grammy loss to the insufferable Meghan Trainor, and Tuesday’s First Avenue performance made it painfully clear how justified she’d be in feeling slighted.
There’s of course a glaring lyrical superiority on Barnett’s recordings, and in the first of her back-to-back sold-out shows, the Aussie “up-and-comer” exposed a dynamism often belied by her laid-back vibe. It further solidified Barnett’s talent and the Grammys' irrelevance in the awards biz.
The three-piece band took the stage backed by a heavy, sternum-shaking drone, establishing from the get-go a live act that would dial up Barnett’s inimitable minimalism to a more fevered display. Before a rotating backdrop of simple cartoon loops and psychedelic animation, she blazed through a good chunk of her catalog, effortlessly hurtling around the stage as she wrangled seemingly discordant guitar solos into something harmonious.
Songs like “Pedestrian at Best” showcased Barnett’s ability to squeeze a lurking aggression out of her don't-give-a-fuck attitude, while deft about-faces to somber numbers like “Depreston" highlighted both her range and onstage versatility.
It would be easy amid the raucousness to focus on the instrumental chops, but let’s not forget Barnett is one of the best lyricists working today, with a distinct vocal approach. That doesn’t automatically make for a good show, but the way she articulated her narratives into the live format — the subtle changes in affectation — sold the show. Those profound yet mundane numbers she’s so good at wheeling get some heightened gravitas when that crackling voice is amplified in person.
There’s a tangible authenticity with Barnett, to borrow an awful buzzword from corporate America. She’s the real deal, a one-of-a-kind talent who pulls off the difficult trick of saying a lot with a little and thereby gets to the core of a little-explored millennial existentialism.
After playing through most of her hits — of which there are a surprising many, given the modesty of her young catalog — Barnett encored with “Pickles From the Jar,” a number off Milk! Records’ (Barnett’s label) compilation 10-inch.
She hadn’t played “Avant Gardener” yet, so that was the expected closer; but for a moment people wondered, Barnett being one of the first musicians to play First Ave since Prince’s death: Would she finish her set by playing “Purple Rain” or something? That sentiment was audibly expressed by a random guy upon leaving the venue, which I preemptively submit as evidence in my defense when I’m accused of shoehorning a Prince tie-in for SEO purposes.
Barnett, of course, did finish with “Avant Gardener,” visibly depleting what little energy she had left after throwing it all out there the past hour. The crowd had responded in kind, and any minor disappointment over lack of a Prince song was undoubtedly quashed thereafter. Still, the question arises: How long will it be until people stop going to First Avenue expecting Prince covers? How long until they stop putting balloons and flowers by his star ...
But I digress: Fuck Meghan Trainor. Courtney Barnett should have won that Grammy and she more than proved it last night.
Critic's bias: See the line immediately above this line.
Notes on the opener: Bully killed. The Barnett-Bully pairing is perfect and the place was almost as packed for the Minnesota-born opener.
Random notebook dump: It’s funny that right now there are popular musicians named Courtney Barnett and Barnes Courtney working. Folks!
The crowd: Surprisingly full of boomers. Very confusing.
Overheard in the crowd: “Is she sick?” — some guy wondering about a wasted young woman being carried out of First Ave.