Concert Review: Aussie Rocker Courtney Barnett — The Next Big Thing?

Courtney Barnett is a scrappy rocker with a hot band, a convincing stage presence, and a bunch of first-class songs. That may not be the next big thing, but it’ll do fine.


Australian rocker/songwriter Courtney Barnett — she performs what may be the first psychedelic rock song about an asthma attack.

By Brett Milano

Among aging indie-rockers who discover one new artist every couple of years, Australian rocker/songwriter Courtney Barnett seems to be the current sensation. You can’t ask for friendlier reference points: As a songwriter she does wild streams of rhymes and images (cue Dylan comparisons), deals frankly and cleverly with the twists of relationships (cue Liz Phair comparisons) and sets it all to primitive three-chord rock (cue any number of great comparisons). She’s the kind of artist you can easily imagine coming out of Boston in the ’90s—not least because the two cover tunes in her set at the Sinclair this week were the Breeders’ “Cannonball” and the Lemonheads’ “Being Around,” both of which she’s performed at home before this tour.

Her Sinclair show in Cambridge sold out months ago, and she’s gotten even more attention in the interim—There was a full-page writeup in the New York Times recently and she’s booked to play, with a bunch of other rock bands, at the upcoming Newport Folk Festival. There were a few of those older hipsters in the Sinclair crowd, but it was mostly a younger, fresh-faced audience. And what did they wind up getting? Just a scrappy rocker with a hot band, a convincing stage presence and a bunch of first-class songs. That may not be the next big thing, but it’ll do fine.

The show opened with its only quiet moment: “Canned Tomatoes (Whole),” a breakup song whose deadpan delivery works in a nicely understated way (as do its lyrics, where the sign-off line is “You should probably call me more”). She did that one alone with her guitar, setting up the entrance of bassist Bones Sloane and drummer Dave Mudle—two bearded, hair-shakin’ guys who were absolutely not folkies. Barnett got into the groove, leaning into her guitar and hiding behind her own long hair—In terms of stage presence, cue Juliana Hatfield comparisons.

And while the music stayed pounding, the subtleties in the songs did come through—the lyrical epigrams (“Depreston,” about a dead-end suburb, is full of them), and some well-crafted hooks. And the band didn’t miss the disconcerting feel of “Avant Gardener,” perhaps the first psychedelic rock song about an asthma attack (and certainly the first to include both an Elvis Presley lyric quote and a rhyme of “adrenain” with “Uma Thurman”). The set-closing current single “Pedestrian at Best” is an early contender for the year’s catchiest; its soft-to-loud shifts are vintage Pixies-esque, and its chorus—“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”—seems a good way of heading off rock stardom at the pass. Still, when she closed the encore by dropping to the floor James Brown-style and got pulled up by her bandmates, she seemed the closest thing to a rock star around.

The opening act was another bright young Australian songwriter Darren Hanlon—who like Barrett had finished the 24-hour flight from Melbourne the afternoon of the show. A literate chap with a lot of fresh angles, he retains a knack for melody from his younger years in rock bands. His best number—a long story-song about a bus ride in Tennessee that was interrupted when someone shot out the tires—was such a good bit of storytelling that you barely noticed how many clever rhymes he’d worked in.

Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.

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