Photos by Elisabeth McKeon
We might have been waiting for a movie to start. The warm, sweet smell of fresh popcorn and artificial butter drifted from the lobby into the grand music hall, trailing behind the concert-goers as they bumbled through the dark. The footlights shone too weakly to make out the seat numbers, so people delicately balanced their popcorn in one hand while scanning the plush velvet rows with their phone flashlights in the other. Climbing across strangers’ laps wasn’t as awkward as it could have been, as we were bound by a common anticipation: in just a few minutes, we would all be watching Courtney Barnett.
But first, we would have to make it through the opener. Bartees Strange opened with a quick, effective set. He introduced the audience to his unique melding of soulful and punky pleadings (a genre classified as “bubblegrunge,” apparently) with songs such as “Boomer” and “Mustang.” The crowd was cheerfully supportive though half-distracted, more occupied with finding their seats and munching on concessions than watching the performance. Like any good preview, Bartees Strange knew when his time was up and promptly ceded the stage to the main attraction.
The lights turned back on in between their sets, giving me a chance to take in the scenery. Barnett had drawn a multi-generational crowd, from across the alphabetical spectrum. Gen X-ers grappling with loss of hair and hipness. Gen Z-ers taking special pride in their recognition of the Modern Lovers song playing over the PA. Much to my chagrin, I counted three other people in black leather dusters aside from myself. I didn’t dare turn around and count however many more, so I focused on my view of the stage. Flanking each side of the stage were two organ grilles wrought in the elaborate Spanish Gothic style. A sun-burst dome, centered above the orchestra pit, ensconced us all in blue stained glass. Everything flickered with peeling gold leaf and the soft glow of votive candles. Shadowy corners may have concealed gargoyles or statues of weeping saints. This former movie palace was the perfect setting for Barnett’s show. Her performance was cinematic.
Barnett and co. (Bones Sloane, bassist, and Stella Mozgawa, drummer and collaborator on Things Take Time, Take Time) performed “Avant Gardener” as their opening song, to much hooting and hollering from the crowd. The staging was reminiscent of a band practice in someone’s parents’ living room as frumpy floor lamps lined the back of the stage, positioned in front of broad strips of curtain. It evoked the kind of suburban discomfort such a song as “Avant Gardener” summons. Barnett bounced around the stage, with the relaxed and springy posture of a bow-legged cowboy. She cycled quickly through the next few songs— “If I Don’t Hear from You Tonight” and “Sunfair Sundown”. Despite the fast, slinging pace of her playing, Barnett’s energy was dialed down. The audience threw up their hands and hailed her, but she didn’t engage beyond a reserved (yet still endearing) “Hulloh.” I wondered, had even this become mundane for Barnett?
During “Small Poppies,” the energy shifted. As she wailed the climax of the song, “aneyeforaneyeforaneyeforaneye for an eyeee,” the floor lamps blinked with a mounting madness as if possessed by a poltergeist. Barnett tossed herself around the stage like Frankenstein’s monster coming to life, electrified by guitar. Beams of orange light shone from behind her; thrown into silhouette, her screams were made all the more sharp. As the set progressed, she blazed with increasing intensity and it all started making sense. The living room set, the movie theater seating; each song was a mini-movie. Her set-list was a collection of episodes following different characters. The lighting transformed the stage with each new song. During “Nameless, Faceless,” she was washed in shafts of red light. The beams intensified and spun as she sang the chorus, “I wanna walk through the park in the dark, women are scared that men will kill them,” channeling her rage. We were watching the empowerment and redemption of a protagonist.
The crowd was enthralled and the hall rang with whistles and the thumps of stomping feet. Barnett chuckled; her reserve isn’t disdain for the mundane. She’s truly saving her breath, preserving her energy for her intense performance. She was so spent by the end of “Turning Green” that she had to take a moment to rest. In her charming style of anti-chatter, she explained to the crowd, “I’m just gonna catch my breath and pretend like I’m speaking… gonna pretend like I’m saying something really interesting…” And oh how we just ate that up!
The audience was earnestly, achingly in tune with Barnett. A favorite moment from the night was during Barnett’s performance of “Depreston.” During the chorus, the crowd sang along– it was the only time during the entire concert that they sang in such unity. As they sang the lines, “If you’ve got a spare half million, you could knock it down and start rebuildin’”, you could hear their voices quiver with emotion as they thought about the Los Angeles real estate market.
Most of the audience respected the movie theater atmosphere, but the move-your-body-ness of the music was undeniable. During “History Eraser,” three brave chaps led the charge into the aisles and started to dance. “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” struck a chord in all of us and got everyone on their feet. By the time of the finale, a performance of “Pedestrian at Best”, we were all dancing and singing along.
Barnett returned for an encore, playing “Oh the Night” and “Before You Gotta Go,” from Things Take Time, but “Pedestrian at Best” was the perfect ending for me. It reminded me of why I became a fan of Barnett in the first place. Her music is irreverent, self-aware, self-deprecating, and exciting. A good concert reaffirms your love for an artist (or inspires you to revisit them). Leaving the Ace, I was swarmed with nostalgia. Later that night, I fell asleep listening to “Lance Jr,” one of my favorite songs from her 2013 album, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Don’t you just love happy endings?