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18th November 2022

Live review: Courtney Barnett gives fans a religious experience at Albert Hall

The Australian singer-songwriter graces Manchester’s Albert Hall as part of her European tour
Live review: Courtney Barnett gives fans a religious experience at Albert Hall
Photo: Courtney Barnett @ Press

Words by Carolyn Pickering

This past Friday (November 11), I was fortunate enough to attend Courtney Barnett‘s first headline show in Manchester since 2018. As a long-time fan who has never had the chance to see her live, I spent most of my week in eager anticipation. I was clearly not alone; her return was met with great enthusiasm from a diverse crowd who sold out Manchester’s Albert Hall.

The Australian singer-songwriter first appeared on the indie rock scene in 2013 with her EP How to Carve a Carrot into a Rosefollowed by her critically acclaimed successive studio-length albums Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit and Tell Me How You Really Feel.  Barnett’s signature blend of dominant and moody guitar with her witty, anecdotal lyrics, are even further juxtaposed through the singer’s understated and plaintive voice. These unique tensions which characterize her sound are why Barnett has remained one of the most distinctive voices in indie music for almost a decade.

Arriving at the venue (a converted 19th century chapel adorned with a wall of stain glass windows, embellished ceilings, and a massive baroque organ suspended over the band), we make our way to the front of the crowd as Barnett, radiating charisma, greets the audience. The reserved staging is lit with the same melancholic blues which make up the cover art of her latest album Things Take Time, Take Time.

The singer’s gentle nature is transformed as she strikes the first note of her guitar and falls into a rhythmic trance. Her seemingly understated all-white outfit is now luminous in the celestial glow of the stage lights, and from our view she even appears framed, saint-like, against the backdrop of one of the stained-glass scenes.

She begins her set with the melodic pairing of ‘Rae Street’ and ‘Sunfair Sundown’, the opening songs on her third album, before pivoting to the iconic opening riff of her most popular song ‘Avant Gardener’. The reaction from the audience is euphoric: everybody, no matter how far back, high up, old or young repeatedly chants the self-deprecating lyrics back to her, “I’m not that good at breathing in”.

The crowd’s elation continues with the next three songs, ‘Nameless Faceless’, ‘Need a Little Time’, and ‘Small Poppies’, which showcase the trio’s grungier guitar ensembles. At this point, Barnett introduces her long-time bandmates: Bones Sloane (bass) and Dave Mudie (drums), both of whom share the spotlight with energetic solo sections throughout.

What follows is very special. My three favourite songs ‘Depreston’, ‘City Looks Pretty’, and ‘Elevator Operator’ are played consecutively! Within the chapel setting, this may be the closest I’ll ever come to a religious experience. The enthusiasm from the crowd echoing the lyrics of ‘Depreston’ back to Barnett has the singer visibly overwhelmed. The communal atmosphere only intensifies when the soaring guitar riff of ‘City Looks Pretty’ fills the air and perfectly accompanies the moment we realise how much joy is being felt.
The spirit of her music to find the beauty in the small moments permeates the room: looking around, couples are suspended in warm embraces and friends are laughing and dancing whilst the music plays on. Barnett articulates this experience herself in ‘Here’s the Thing’: “The windowsill, is momentarily filled with sun / And it’s these small thrills, that get me through the day until the next one”.

With guitar interludes teasing the audience for what is to come, Barnett kicks off an exuberant second half with the stomping drums of ‘History Erasure’, igniting a newfound zeal in the crowd. This energy reaches its pinnacle when the fuzzy drone of the guitar introduces the first iconic lines of everyone’s favourite scream-along anthem, ‘Pedestrian at Best’: “I love you, I hate you / I’m on the fence, it all depends”.

The shared experience of releasing our pent-up angst by yelling along with Barnett seems to be intensely cathartic for both audience and performer. This symbiotic exchange is facilitated through her down to earth persona; she is clearly introverted by nature and finds an extraordinary comfort on the stage, not only embracing but returning the audience’s joy with sincerity. Out of the many gigs I have seen recently – most identifying within the post-punk genre – Barnett is a refreshing contrast to the nihilistic and apathetic image often projected towards the audience.

She is personable, and her enthusiasm for the fans shared joy in her music seems incredibly genuine. Even songs I am less familiar with were delightful! Her refusal to play into the ego of the aloof indie-rocker seems to mirror her defiant lyrics: “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”.

Ending a generous 21 song setlist, Barnett comes out to endless applause for the fitting encore, ‘Before You Gotta Go’. Giving equal weight to each of her albums, including many crowd pleasers, her performance did not disappoint – she slayed! . The vivid imagery conjured up in her songwriting found extraordinary expression through her live performance, gifting audiences an unforgettable experience.

Things Take Time, Take Time is out now, and you can stream it below:

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