Courtney Barnett in The Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on Monday 12th November 2018
Nerdy, sexually frustrated and hopelessly romantic – all traits of the school band saxophonist, according to Laura Jean Englert. The Melbourne-based musician (who performs as Laura Jean) has joined the headliner for this European tour, and despite the programmed beats that underpin her songs, the keys that flesh them out, and the personal, emotive lyrics that push them home, it is her saxophone that steals the show.
Lick Your Heart receives a lift from the crowd at the song’s outro, with the brass adding a layer of heavier funk. “It’s not sexy”, she assures us as the sax reappears and Devotion breathes some life back into the room where momentum stalls a bit during a more low-key Northerly. Each time the song’s horn section kicks in there’s an ever-increasing cheer from the stalls, something the singer can’t help but laugh at. Audience and performer alike seem to enjoy the good-humoured set, with the increasingly vocal crowd willing participants in the performance. It’s a trend that will continue into the main set.
When we caught Courtney Barnett in Whelan’s three years ago, she was mid-transformation from laid-back folk troubadour to full-on garage rocker. 2015’s ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’ record showcased a more full-blooded approach to her playing style, an altogether different performer than the one from her earlier, slacker-tagged E.P.s. The CB3 power trio that sweated it out in Whelan’s has now expanded to a quartet, but the dynamic has shifted once more, with the intervening years seeing Barnett’s confidence as a bandleader grow exponentially. This is now very much the Courtney Barnett band.
From her solo start, Hopefulessness grows incrementally in power and volume as the band builds it up, with the crowd backing them all the way. The bulk of the set is comprised of her two albums proper, but the material from her first couple of E.P’s have now also taken on that harder edge, from the snappy, grungy solo of Avant Gardener to the rock-out ending of Are You Looking After Yourself. New song Small Talk meanders less successfully into jam band territory as it winds down, while Small Poppies sees Barnett in full-on guitar hero mode, front of stage with the guitar slung below her knees.
Laura Jean comes back out for a cover of The Go-Betweens’ Streets Of Your Town. The singers share vocal duties, but it’s Englert’s sax, unsurprisingly, that gets the big cheer while Barnett hangs back in the shadows. The second cover of the night is a lovely, solo take on Gillian Welch’s Everything Is Free, and marks the beginning of a relatively sombre encore considering the often abrasive routs that preceded it. Anonymous Club is similarly understated, bolstered by the band’s restrained force, feeling like it’s about to erupt at any moment until Pedestrian At Best finally blows the lid off. The band take their leave, and Barnett hers, guitar held aloft as the feedback whines, its body resting on top of her head.
Barnett’s command of the stage has been honed over this last few years of touring, from the solo segments to the head-down freak-outs, and when a voice from the crowd roars “you’re fucking amazing!” in the singer’s direction mid-set, it’s to a response of immediately affirming cheers. The raw punk band edges of a few years ago have, for better or worse, been smoothed out in favour of a more accomplished rock show, lights and all, but one thing is certainly clear from tonight’s set – Barnett’s trajectory is far from flagging.