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Live Review & Gallery: Courtney Barnett @ Sydney Opera House – 23.08.2018

“Courtney Barnett can’t sing.” “Courtney Barnett just mumbles through her songs.” “Courtney Barnett just plays slacker-rock!”

May I direct those who have said some variation of the above in the past to Courtney Barnett’s next show at the Opera House this Saturday 25 August? Hell, I’d go again just to show you. You will change your mind, I guarantee. Slacker-rock becomes a misnomer, as the introspective songwriter becomes an exhibitionist on stage, displaying her powers of tension and genuine skill.

Barnett took on the Concert Hall stage at the Sydney Opera House, full band in tow, yellow fairy lights draped over the equipment and stage front. “I’ve played here before,” Barnett said. “It was for someone’s HSC, and I turned my guitar down.”

Slowly warming the cavernous room with new album ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ opener Hopefulessness, Barnett and the band excellently crafted what was to be a journey through her discography—in fact, injected full of hope.

I was immediately spellbound by the way Barnett commanded her guitar. You hear these guitar parts in recordings, but you do not imagine them attached to fingers. The wailing instrument expressed immense agency, dissonance, and confidence, solo and riff parts demanding to be heard. The red offset was thrown around the stage in a whirling turbulence, but her fingers remained steady. Courtney Barnett could play her songs while falling from an aeroplane in a hurricane, and they would still sound transcendent.

Dead Poppies was the stand-out song of the night, strobing lights following hectic fingers that smashed notes into the fretboard. “I used to hate myself now I think I’m alright,” had Barnett screaming and growling (like, real growling you would hear in a metal band), reverberating emotion and volume into the Sydney Opera House’s walls.

Barnett’s dripping sarcasm and acerbic wit was in full-swing, lyrics spitting with vitriol or oozing with saccharine derision. Songs like Avant Gardener and Depreston welcomed old fans, having others in the crowd laughing like it was the first time they had heard the lyrics. From vulnerable melodic passages that saw the singer’s voice break with vulnerability, to yelling, “I’m not your mother, I’m not your bitch!” the journey was a full spectrum of sentiment.

Barnett earned a standing ovation when she declared the end of her set. The three-part encore followed close behind, however.

The first encore was enough to make a grown ass woman like myself cry. A cover of Gillian Welch’s Everything is Free, saw Barnett return to the stage by herself; plucking through warm guitar tones, and singing like her life depended on it. Her sonorous, soaring voice shined without the bells and whistles. “Of course she can sing!” the crowd told themselves. How could we think any different?

Pedestrian at Best was a fantastic closer. The band returned to the stage, and pummelled the audacious song into our memories. The guttural vocals and clanging guitar got the crowd standing at the seated venue. Barnett screamed, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” but I do not think a single person left the venue disappointed.

Written by Samantha Hughes

Photos by Lehan Zhang