Courtney Barnett let her music do the talking at the Pageant
By Ronnie Wisdom
Courtney Barnett, a lean, unassuming Aussie, sings in a plaintive voice that belies the complex wordplay, depressed self-reflection, and frequently riotous nature of her lyrics. She is frequently described as a singer-songwriter, but within her chest is a raw, pulpy, punk-rock heart that is perhaps more apparent live – where, this past Tuesday (July 17, 2018), she could be seen onstage at the Pageant, shredding on her red guitar, fingers a blur, hair flailing, punctuating songs that seem low-key on the recording with a burst of sound and scratch that give her work an entirely new edge.
The Pageant was packed to the gills with adoring fans, many of whom singing along to her every word. Her voice is clear as a bell, if a somewhat disconsolate alto – in the neighborhood of Neko Case, but on Xanax – and she alternated between unshowy and unholy screams full of gravel and grit. Yet for all the frenzied declarations of love, shouted from every corner of the room, there was precious little banter coming from the stage: Ms. Barnett was pleasant, smiling in between sets, mannerly – yet removed. “You doing good, yeah?” and “Thank you” was about all she said. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she half-sings, half-yells in “Pedestrian At Best”.
And what a set it was, spanning her (relatively) small catalog to date: nearly one-third apiece from her double EP, "A Sea of Split Peas," her 2015 release "Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit" and this year’s excellent recording, "Tell Me How You Really Feel." Classics such as “Avant Gardener” and “Elevator Operator” got huge applause, but so did newcomers like “City Looks Pretty” and “Nameless Faceless,” a melodic little ditty about walking alone at dark that takes as its chorus the famous quote by Margaret Atwood: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them /Women are scared that men will kill them.”
The set list was not only the old and new, but the fist-pumpingly energetic coupled with the languid. “Depreston,” a recounting of looking for a new house, felt less funny and more dismal when delivered from the stage, Ms. Barnett’s face half-obscured by her mop of hair, backlit in slowly alternating stage lights of blues and grays. Then there were others that started sleepily but finished with force: “Out of the Woodwork” and “Hopefulessness” morphed from folksy shoegaze to thunderous, Ms. Barnett’s guitar wailing around a thrash of heavy drums and bass.
And there were surprises, even for me, a longtime fangirl. For instance, I never realized how sexy “Anonymous Club” is, a seemingly straightforward little tune about having a friend (or lover?) over for wine, kicking off shoes and troubles, swapping clothes and perhaps other things. The band worked in a slow-burning interlude, culminating in a lovely outro that had everyone a little weak in the knees: “Thank you for cooking for me / I had a really nice evening, just you and me” – simple words, simply stated, about a cozy night in.
As she left the stage for the last time, to absolutely deafening screams and applause, she waved and pointed out a girl in the crowd. “I’ve got the same shirt,” she remarked with a smile. Then, laying her guitar carefully on the floor, a wall of feedback still rebounding off the rafters, she loped offstage with an easy stride as if she weren’t one of the most distinctive voices in music today.
Vagabon opened the show, a Cameroon-born, New-York based young woman in a red skirt, joined onstage by a full band. Her voice has the richness of Tracy Chapman but the high, breathy quality of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, and her weird, folksy-yet-trippy songs recalled the gloomier side of early 90s indie rock. It’s not hard to imagine her fiddling with effects pedals and keyboards on her bedroom floor, but she has innate stage presence, and judging by her reception I would say she’s made quite a few new fans in St. Louis.