Photographs by Daniela Tantalo.
When the doors of The Danforth in Toronto opened to the late afternoon Monday sun, a small but enthusiastic crowd of Courtney Barnett fans filled the venue, milling around by the barrier-free stage in a mix of ages and demographics. Many of the on-time attendees were part of a group affectionately referred to by some as the “dad demographic”. Not often found in such large numbers in a downtown GA concert hall, these fans find traces of Lou Reed and Patti Smith in Barnett’s work, a sound new yet familiar. One such fan drove to Toronto from Buffalo just for the show, staying at an Air B&B nearby and leaving the next day. Asked what it is about Barnett that makes her worth the trip, he cited her lyrics, saying he “[hasn’t] felt or heard anything like that in a long time.”
“She doesn’t take it too seriously,” he continued. “She’s into her craft, but gets the weird spectacle.” This lack of pretension is a key part of the image Barnett and her band mates Bones Sloane (bass) and Dave Mudie (drums) have cultivated, and it’s no surprise the evening’s opener, The Sandwich Police, carry a similar mood. Casually walking on stage at the 8 o’clock mark and launching into their first song with no introduction, the three-piece band was without question the most relaxed I’ve ever seen live performers. This isn’t to say they seemed bored or above it; the folksy trio navigated between Creedence Clearwater-esque songs on factory jobs and Tennessee crooned by Evan Dando to airy vocals from singer Marciana Jones reminiscent of Molly Rankin of Alvvays with a calm comfort, Willy Mason sitting comfortably at the drum kit all the while. The band is a ménage of established musicians getting paid to hang out and jam, and it was clear the group was simply happy to be performing, be it in a living room or in front of an audience onstage. By the end of the set the crowd was fully immersed in their infectious positivity and ready to carry that feeling into the main event.
The moment Barnett stepped on stage, the crowd was hers. By the 9pm start time the venue was full from balcony to front, each person struggling to get closer to what they knew would be a performance to remember. The band opened with Dead Fox, an upbeat hit to set the tone as the fast-driving animals of its animated video tossed bright colours across the stage. No warm-up, hold back melody needed; the opener had done their job. Ready to dance, the infectious beat and ever clever lyrics immediately had the audience smiling and moving in the primary lights. Courtney Barnett is a rock act above all, but the crowd wasn’t one to slam into each other or shove their neighbour aside for a better view; aside from one clearly intoxicated fan repeatedly screaming, “COURTNEY, YOU’RE MY GIRL” at every opportunity, the audience didn’t have a need to make themselves heard; they were here to listen.
As previous shows (such as her set at last summer’s Wayhome Festival) have proven, Barnett and her band are a sound best enjoyed live. The downbeat environmental lament Kim’s Caravan holds deeper emotion and introspection when you see her downturned lips form the words, and fan favourite Pedestrian At Best benefitted from more raw, unpredictable screams that sent the audience into a frenzy of unhinged jumping and writhing, shouting the lyrics right back at her, without a doubt the wildest they were all night. Songs between, Scotty Says, Debbie Downer, An Illustration of Loneliness all held the rough feel of a group who knew exactly what they were doing without the polish. They were there to play, not overthink every beat, and the show was better for it. After questioning her own ambition in Out of the Woodwork, Barnett dove into Small Poppies and unleashed a guitar solo rivalled only by her playing at Wayhome (which resulted in bloodied and shredded fingers, a true mark of her immersion in the moment). She danced to the front and back of the stage, head banging and hair flying before falling to her knees and leaning deep over her guitar as if protecting the fans in front of her from the sheer power she possessed. Somehow, her control held throughout, not just a showy display for the crowd without substance but an example of someone lost in her element and loving every second of it.
Speaking of loving it: the smiles. It was impossible not to feel the joy radiate off the band, even in the rare moments when the songs themselves (like Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’s Depreston) were less than cheery. The chemistry was unmistakable, and you got the sense that not only were they having the best time, but it was largely because of you. Standing at the stage directly below Barnett, I was lucky enough to be in her sightline more than once to experience eye contact and an unabashed grin. Along with the love for the crowd, more often than not the smiles were turned to band mates, laughing at each other when extra riffs and endings were tossed in off the cuff. Following Depreston with the newer and much loved Three Packs a Day before the visceral experience of Pedestrian at Best, there was never a jarring moment, each song flowing into the next with a sense of purpose and, well, joy.
They followed Are You Looking After Yourself?, a millennial crisis and personal favourite, with Lance Jr, an ode to masturbation, examples of one of two headings her lyrics tend to fall under: a sort of self-talk, personal monologue with roots in anxiety and uncertainty. Lyrics like “I don’t know what I was drinking. I should get a dog. Should get married, have some babies, watch the evening news” show paralells to “I masturbated to the songs you wrote. Resuscitated all of my hopes. It felt wrong but it didn’t take too long. Much appreciated are your songs”, framed as if said out loud but too awkward or insecure to remain anywhere but in her head or in her lyrics. It’s a piece of her mind on a platter, the sort of not-too-serious honesty that brings fans overnight from Buffalo. Elevator Operator is under the other heading, her amazing capacity for storytelling. In this case, the subject isn’t her but Oliver Paul, a young working man who skips his job to go hang out on the Nicholas building roof and is mistook for being suicidal. Not one word is left out or misunderstood as she tells his story to the crowd and the images are so clear it’s hard not to see it play out in your minds eye. A visual artist as well (she designs her band shirts, sketches of clotheslines and mixing bowls), it’s obvious Courtney Barnett is a writer, artist and singer who decided to mash all three together rather than choose to pursue just one. After the aforementioned Kim’s Caravan the band finishes with Avant Gardener as their final pre-encore song, this time a first person story of gardening gone awry so detailed it’s hard not to believe it really happened.
After the predicted shouts of, “Encore!” and “We love you!”, Barnett returned without her band but with TSP’s Evan Dando in tow. Dando played acoustic guitar as the two shared a mic and sang a cover of Being Around by The Lemonheads, Dando’s previous band. The song is sweet and soft and Barnett and Dando harmonized beautifully. Dando left the stage and the band returned to finish off with Pickles From The Jar and Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party. Both are preformed with an excess of enthusiasm, as if the band had just begun and weren’t exhausted after an hour of playing, and the audience fed off it and begged for more, refusing to let aching feet or sore backs keep them back from staying fixated on the spectacle in front of them until the last possible second. Simply put, Courtney Barnett & The Courtney Barnetts give everything to their audience. After seeing them during festival season I’d feared no performance could live up to my expectations, but this concert surely exceeded it. If you like her, love her, have never heard of her, this is an artist to see live, if you’re lucky enough to get a chance. Not one second was lost to anything but music, and though the crowd left feeling satiated with a smile, I guarantee each member immediately began scouring the internet to see if there was any sign of her coming back again.