Lee hasn’t been to a gig since 1999, he tells me, an affable, fairly well-watered bloke who starts chatting as soon as I sit down at The Forum, for the second of Courtney Barnett’s two-night run in Kentish Town. “Depeche Mode”, he says, before his wife, Julia, reminds him they saw Babybird once too. Three years of living in Australia, and listening to Courtney Barnett’s scratchy, insightful, refreshing punk-rock on alternative radio, has given them the taste again. She’s that kind of act.
It’s been a good year for Courtney. Her debut LP “Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit” definitely has a string hand in the Album Of The year conversation. It’s a punk-rock record that doesn’t take itself too seriously, simmering with surf guitar and wry, funny, observational lyrics about being a kid in Australia. To say it’s rough around the edges is to do a huge disservice to Courtney’s skill as a writer and vocalist, but listening to it - as I have done, many times, since its March release - you can’t help but think that the songs really deserve a brash, energetic, noise-filled live performance. It’s not that she’s holding back, just that she has more to give, exactly what you want from a new artist.
And live, she delivers. Backed by drum and bass, turned slightly inward to face her band, as well as the audience, she has all the energy that her songwriting suggests. She’s also a far better guitarist than the record leads you to believe, switching between chugging rhythm to load, brash solos seamlessly, and really going for it too. Too often you see indie bands whose attitude to live performance is to stand stock-still, to posture a bit, and then to head off. Courtney is having fun, gliding to and from the microphone like she’s in the video for Hotline Bling.
And so she should! These are fun songs! They’re great songs, but they have that cool, funny, observational quality that reminds you of Alex Turner at his best. Arctic Monkeys took off because they combined a tight, indie-rock sound with a guy who sang about people he knew. Courtney is, in a way, Australia’s answer to that kind of songwriting - the Arctic Monkeys if they’d grown up on the beach, having barbecues and going for drives out into the desert, rather than hanging about in the rain in Sheffield.
The one hesitance I always have when going to see a new act, particularly one on such a high playing a big show, is how much material they’ll actually have. What will the feel of the room be when she plays some new stuff, or some old demos? How do you keep that energy up when you go off script? Thankfully, the stuff I didn’t recognise still sounded great, although obviously the lyrics got a little muddied. The big album highlights - Elevator Operator, Pedestrian at Best, and the beautifully melancholic Depreston - got the best responses, combined with a pretty cool animated backdrop.
Walking home, I couldn’t help think of Julia and Lee. Sixteen years without seeing a live gig. They clearly loved music, but man...sixteen years. That’s a habit that it’s hard to break, and can only be broken when someone really cuts through the noise. That’s the feeling I had earlier this year when I heard Courtney’s record - cutting through the noise. It’ll be interesting to see if she maintains this level of venue size - part of me wished she was playing in a smaller dive of a venue, Dingwalls or The Garage - but I don’t know, I might have missed the boat on that one. Still, we’ve got a great new rock and roll songwriter to hang our hats on. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she continued her ascendancy, and saw her pretty high on the bill on some of next summer’s festivals.