Behind the cluster of municipal buildings crowding the northern edge of DTLA’s Arts District, and just before the Metro rail yard marking its eastern boarder, sits a converted warehouse whose nondescript facade conceals the intimate and graceful gallery space known as Dilletante. It proved to be a fitting venue for Friday night’s invite-only launch of Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, the debut album from Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett, a musician who writes and performs with a candid humility betrayed by overwhelming talent. With her insecurities as exposed as the vaulted ceiling above, Barnett, 27, was at her self-deprecating best, electrifying the packed house with her first Stateside performance –and third performance overall– of the new album in full.
Fellow Melbourner, Frazer A. Gorman (pronounced “like, you shave your face”), warmed up the buzzing crowd, with songs from his own upcoming June debut. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, a harmonica holder, and a head full of dark curls, the balladeer’s resemblance to a young Bob Dylan was lost on no one.
Half way through his set, heads bobbing along to his rolling, whimsical, country song, “Broken Hand”, I sensed a presence to my right, and, glancing sideways, realized Barnett had been enjoying the show directly beside me, close enough to read the notes I had been hectically scribbling into my notepad (hey, it was my first concert review). In that moment, overcome with self-consciousness, I recalled a recent interview of Barnett’s, in which she admitted feeling “like a bit of a doofus” when talking to the press. It was an oddly reassuring epiphany, to think any interaction between the two of us here would lead to mutually assured discomfort. So we stood there silently for a couple songs more, until she finally stepped forward to snap a photo of Gorman, before retreating back behind the roped-off area.
When her moment on the stage finally arrived, she, bassist Bones Sloane, and drummer Dave Mudie, launched right into the album’s first track, “Elevator”, with little in way of introductions. Barnett’s constant stream of lyrics allows practically no breaks to breathe, but the musician is unfazed, pushing through verses like a limitless bellow. What’s more, the conversational style of singing featured on her recordings is replaced by an urgent, full-bodied yell, rising to the intensity and volume of a live show. This is Barnett 9000.
Next came the crowd-pleasing lead single, “Pedestrian At Best”, followed immediately by, “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)”. Barnett quickly switched guitars and said, “Thanks,” before jumping into “Small Poppies”, which crescendoed in a showy guitar solo, earning hoots and hollers from the crowd. Afterwards, Barnett explained, “That’s my scary song, that I think is going to fall apart any second. And it’s done. So now we can have fun.” It was the most she has said outside of a song since taking the stage (Maybe she’s so taciturn between songs because she’s got so much to say within them). The mellow and familiar “Depreston” was next, offering a sweet respite from the intensity of the previous pieces, and a faint echo could be heard from the handful in the crowd who were singing along. After Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit has its wide release on March 24 (via Mom+Pop), one has to assume all Barnett’s live performances will offer this crowd-assisted, surround-sound listening experience.
“Aqua Profunda!” expounded on the universal urge to show-off while swimming laps at the public pool. It was followed by “Dead Fox” and the rousing “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party” (which is my life’s new theme song, by the way). In what may have been the most Courtney Barnett moment of the evening, the singer took a moment to apologize to everyone in the front, just in case she had spit on them while singing, then performed a song called “Debbie Downer”, with lyrics that begin, “I’m sorry for all my insecurities.”
The second to last, “Kim’s Caravan” featured a sprawling, psychedelic build, and hints of “The Man Who Stole the World”, showing off the band’s versatility, and offering a satisfying conclusion. To that end, Barnett performed the final track, “Boxing Day Blues”, alone.
With the performance complete, many in the crowd lingered to finally get a good look at the art that lined the gallery’s walls: Tajette O’Hallaran’s photographs from the recording process, and Courtney Barnett’s art prints. Continuing with the “sitting” theme of her album title, all the musician’s art pieces featured chairs, presented with the same self-aware charm and smirk of her music. One piece is titled “Blue Chair”, even though we only see it in black and white. Another carried the disclaimer “(bad perspective)”, ignoring that very few of the pieces have what would traditionally be considered good perspective. My particular favorite are two pieces placed side by side, titled “Leather Chair” and “Other Leather Chair”, respectively.
All in all, the event was a well-rounded presentation of one of her greatest gifts as a storyteller: her relatable, unflinching openness. With her wry sense of humor and half-hearted self-loathing, Barnett is an artist rational enough to ridicule her anxieties, but human enough to admit their lingering, irrational power.
Courtney Barnett will be performing at SXSW this week, then will back for a North American tour this May. See all the stops on her website.
Photos by the talented Philip Cosores