Review: Courtney Barnett brings second album to Stage AE


Darren Campuzano | Staff Writer

Courtney Barnett strums her signature red guitar during her show at Stage AE on Oct. 19.

By Darren Campuzano, Staff Writer

Courtney Barnett wants to have it her way — anything less would just be cramping her style.

Her way consists of naturally commandeering the stage to speak her mind. Dressed casually in a white T-shirt and black jeans, the Australian musician walked onto Stage AE Friday evening without taking a glance at the crowd. Instead, she was more focused on finding a place to set down her coffee mug before strapping on her left-handed Fender Strat.

A red spotlight illuminated her dark hair as the band kicked into the droning opening seconds of “Hopefulessness,” a grunge-ridden track that leisurely leads into a chaotic blend of amp feedback and heavy bass when Barnett sings the words, “I’m getting louder now.”

On stage, Barnett danced from side to side with her torso bowed down as her band supported the heavy melody. She then proceeded to tear her guitar off her shoulder, flip it upside down so the head hit the floorboards and keep it there, as if waiting for the last drop of sound to pour out.

The crowd garnered an array of indie rock buffs to Stage AE to witness the breakthrough songwriter’s set. Her indie rock songs are written with realistic lyrics, sprinkled with a bit of deadpan humor. Barnett’s words make prosaic life events look monumental right before they’re followed up with a scrappy guitar solo. Pittsburgh was part of her fall tour to promote her sophomore full-length album “Tell Me How You Really Feel.”

Simply said, Barnett is wicked good at the guitar and her live playing is even better, reminiscent of a time when rock was less predictable. Her latest album is definitely unpredictable. Parts of it carry topical messages and other tracks are simply designated to be blasted through an amp.

City Looks Pretty” is one of those tracks. It contains blistering guitar from Barnett aligned to a simple, haunting chorus — “Sometimes I get mad / It’s not half as bad / Pull yourself together / And just calm down.”

Barnett smiled as a random flake of confetti leftover from a previous concert breezed past her before stepping into a trippy rendition of “Avant Gardener.” The song is a double entendre and a perfect example of Barnett’s quirky lyrical style.

She gave a few quick adjustments to her pedalboard and followed up with “Need A Little Time,” a breakup song without the sappiness, and the adrenaline-fueled “Nameless, Faceless,” a song seemingly in tune with the #MeToo movement about domestic violence and women feeling the need to walk with their keys in hand for self-defense.

The song signaled an alarming change in tone as Barnett sipped from her mug, spat behind her back and led the band into “I’m not Your Mother. I’m Not Your Bitch,” an aggressive, yet chilling expression of repressed rage in roughly two minutes.

She cooled it down with “Small Poppies,” backed by band member Katie Harkin’s purposefully lethargic rhythm guitar, making the song resemble early acid rock from the ’60s.

Barnett then showed off her fresh single “Small Talk,” the musical version of her experience trying to entertain a house guest with awkward, superficial conversation. Ironically, she did the same while talking to the audience.

“It’s lovely to be here,” Barnett said. “It’s good to see you all. Nice to meet you.”

“What kind of guitar is that?” a crowd member called out.

“It’s a red one. It’s a red guitar,” Barnett added.

To avoid further questioning, Barnett jumped back in with “Depreston,” presenting a soothing vocal delivery from the singer and detailing the mediocrity of a real-estate listing. It may depict a “Californian bungalow in a cul-de-sac,” but it’s also a metaphor for wrestling with the decision to allow for a life to start over or to leave it alone.

It’s a little deeper than the discussion of what type of guitar Barnett wields.

Other highlights of the second half include Barnett’s decision to invite opener Waxahatchee back on stage to join her in covering “Houses,” a folk-tinted ballad by the widely unheard-of Elyse Weinberg.

“Any final questions?” Barnett said, toward the end of the set. “It’s very hard to understand all of you speaking at once. Maybe we’ll play another song, instead.”

To the audience’s delight, she took a stab at two more songs. “Charity” is one of her most recent gripping, standout tracks, while the manic vibe of “History Eraser” serves as a flashback to her early double EP, “A Sea of Split Peas.”

While Barnett rips out power chords on her red guitar, a hooked crowd recites the line of the chorus — “In my brain, I rearrange the letters on the page to spell your name.”

Barnett got it her way at Stage AE — but the fans got it their way too. Fans left the North Shore that night with smiles on their faces, still singing the singer’s catchy tunes and chuckling about the red guitar.