Friday, 6 November 2015

Courtney Barnett - Solo Show at Slow Boat Records

Courtney Barnett onstage at Slow Boat
Having recently made the move from the UK to New Zealand and just this last week to Wellington, I’m now in the process of familiarising myself with the local music scene (amongst countless other things in my new hometown). Whilst this can often be a hard process to start in a new city, especially when you’re no longer energetic enough go to every gig you see advertised, I’ve found local record shops to be the key. There are countless books, blog posts and documentaries that attest to the fact that if you’re lucky enough to be in a city with a great local record store, then it can be a brilliant resource for discovering what’s going on musically. For me, in Wellington, Slow Boat Records would appear to be that store.

Slow Boat isn’t a well kept secret by any means, in fact it’s somewhat of a New Zealand institution. The longest running independent record store in the country, it’s a favourite spot for serious music nerds, casual fans and visiting musicians alike and boasts a pretty amazing selection of records from all over the world. So it makes perfect sense that Slow Boat is where I saw my first proper gig in New Zealand, a lunchtime, in-store, solo show by Courtney Barnett ahead of her sold out show at Bodega that evening. 

Based in Melbourne, Barnett is a critically acclaimed indie rock musician whose debut album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”, is a masterpiece of noisey, loose and most importantly clever, alternative rock. The songs on this record, though very well constructed, can at times seem like they’re almost on the verge of collapse due to the energetic but amiable looseness of Barnett’s performance. But it’s always seemed to me that the band dynamic and sound is pretty vital to the music on this record. Her great performances of songs like the wry, dissatisfied “Pedestrian At Best” on various US TV shows did everything to convince me of how good a musician and lyricist Barnett is but also reinforced the notion that these were “band” songs.

So needless to say I was intrigued as to what this solo set would be like as I and about 150 other people crowded amongst the racks at Slow Boat. Right from the start I was struck by how funny Barnett’s lyrics are. As much as I’d admired her storytelling abilities when listening to the record, there was something about seeing these songs performed live that made me and others in the crowd laugh out loud. Lines like “The paramedic thinks I'm clever ‘cause i play guitar / I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying” - taken from “Avant Gardner” - delivered in Barnett’s deadpan, pretenceless style are so simple and true that it's hard not to find them funny. There is also an emotional honesty to these songs that seems somewhat effortless. The melancholy “Depreston” moves almost seamlessly from a story about house hunting to pondering the life of a woman who’s house is being sold after her death. Somehow it captures perfectly the mix of intrigue, sadness and frustration that those situations can create but without ever feeling forced or overwrought. Barnett was in a genial mood, chatting with crowd, telling funny stories about the origins of her songs and, when she became distracted by it halfway through her rendition of “Dead Fox”, pausing to marvel at a poster advertising an old Bob Dylan and Patti Smith show. When she’d finished and left the stage, the store’s manager returned to thank her and lead the crowd in singing happy birthday to Barnett, who had turned 28 a day or two ago. 

It's safe to say that at no point during the show did I feel the absence of a band. These songs can carry their own weight and are just as effective if they’re played with a full band or by one woman with a telecaster. The fact remains that they are clever and well written and the loose, noisey sound on the record, is just one way they can be performed. Perhaps it’s the definitive way but it’s not by any means the only one.

Courtney Barnett's album “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” is available now on iTunes.