Saturday, 5 December 2015

971 COURTNEY BARNETT, Big Scary, Bristol O2 Academy, Friday 4th December 2015

My Autumn mini-tour of Bristol (11 gigs, 8 different venues!) comes to an end tonight, and it’s in the company of an artist who’s been causing a bit of a buzz of late; Courtney Barnett, an Australian singer whose 2015 debut CD, “Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit”, has invited comparisons to mid-90’s era Lemonheads, with its’ deadpan, conversational delivery, insouciant, chilled atmosphere and post-grunge, slightly countrified slacker melody. Oh, and La Court’s habit of covering the likes of “Into Your Arms” as well…! I’d just missed out on her sell-out Fleece gig earlier this year, but booked myself a ticket in good time for this one.

On the train as well! Wednesday’s traffic carnage around Cabot Circus had made me think, crikey, what’s it going to be like for an early gig on a Chrimbo shopping Friday night? Luckily a planned early curfew and a decently timed final train seemed to fit well together, so I hopped on the 6.30 from Swindon and walked the steady 20 minutes to the venue, gaining entrance through the newly-installed airport style scanning archways and post-Bataclan searches, thereby arriving midway through the support act, fellow Antipodeans and Barratt acolytes Big Scary. However, they really didn’t do it for me “live”; they mainly played variously discordant and oddly samey jazz workouts and insipid 80’s wine bar funk, with the vocalists’ falsetto uncomfortably recalling Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. There’s a comparison I’ve not used it a while…

I wandered out to the lobby during their final number, and ran into the Bristol-domiciled Kieron and Alison, plus friends, for a nice chat and catch up. Wandered back onto the uncomfortably stuffed dancefloor, trying stage left first, then back to my usual stage right spot, eventually finding a pocket of space and a decent view. The diminutive Courtney, black clad with new INXS t-shirt (a local “find” earlier today, apparently), led her 3-piece band on, and straight into “Elevator Operator”, the laconic and witty, stream-of-consciousness current CD opener, her dry, deadpan and heavily accented vocals to the fore. “Avant Gardener”, next up, was a hooky slacker indie treat so redolent of “Shame About Ray” era prime Dando, and “Dead Fox”, my favourite from the current CD, was a laid-back Sheryl Crow Sunset Strip cruise with some strident harmonies to finish.

A good start; I wish I could say that this level was maintained... However, the slow-burn, sprawling “Small Poppies” dragged, and I was distracted by the cartoon backdrop of woodland monsters, before being snapped back by Courtney’s grungy howl at the song’s climax, which suggested there’s actually a snarling riot grrl in there if you scratch the surface… This juxtaposition continued throughout the set – lots of enticing, intriguing material, played well, contrasted with some flimsy, flyaway stuff which drifted along innocuously, and I couldn’t help but wonder that this would have been an excellent 45min-1 hour set at the Thekla or Trinity, but felt overlong and uneven as a 1 ½ hour job at the more cavernous Academy. Don’t get me wrong, lots of good moments here tonight; a delicate “Depreston”, initially recalled the stripped back US alt-rock of, ironically, Real Estate, and climaxed with the quietest singalong I’ve heard at a gig (prompting a, “that was nice,” response from the otherwise taciturn Courtney); “Debbie Downer” was an ironically upbeat and bouncy C86-tinged shamble, and the set finale double of the groovy 60’s influenced harmonies of “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party”, and the harsher, more confrontational “Pedestrian At Best” was the set highlight. Shame it felt like there was a fair bit of padding in between…

Courtney dragged Big Scary on for the first encore, a rambunctious run-through of The Saints’ “Know Your Product”, the support band’s saxophonist playing a starring role here and making this 37 year old swaggering punk rock number sound fresh and vital; then “oldie” “History Eraser” finished a set which overall was good, but not great. I snuck out quickly after snagging Larry Lights’ set-list from the mixing desk, then reflected on this on the swift walk back and train ride home. Maybe a case of popularity outstripping depth of quality material at the moment; maybe, in Courtney’s own words; “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you…” Either way, I’m sure there’s more to come from this undoubtedly talented young singer, so don’t write her off – or overhype her! – yet…!

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