Review: Courtney Barnett at the Olympia

Courtney Barnett played at the Olympia last Monday; see her if you can, she’s amazing. 

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Courtney Barnett on stage at the Olympia (photo by author)

“The future is female” or so said Nikola Tesla. Watching Courtney Barnett hold Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in the palm of her hand, it seems that rock music’s future is female.

Barnett is far from the  stale, traditional mode of dumb blokes singing about shagging anything that moves. The 31- year old Sydney native writes deadpan, wry verses about ordinary life, often using circular choruses and hooks. And when she rocks, she rocks hard.

A fellow Australian, Laura Jean, opens the show. A diffident stage presence, most of her songs would be best suited to a quiet bedroom instead of a live venue, however, when she whips out the sax it’s a game changer. Some good natured slagging ensues and it seems that Laura Jean is enjoying herself a bit more. Her songs had some interesting ideas but her set could have really benefited from a live band; it takes a hell of a presence to fill a stage alone.

While Laura Jean was a more demure, and dare I say, traditionally feminine presence, Courtney Barnett blisters in with ‘Hopefulessness’ from her 2018 album, Tell Me How You Really Feel. She’s an incredible guitarist, and her voice, which one could mistake for slightly weak on record, is an Aussie-accented powerhouse. Her band, too, are faultless and there’s a lovely atmosphere on stage that only comes when musicians truly love playing together.

The opener is followed by ‘City Looks Pretty’ and then Barnett brings us all the way back to 2014’s ‘Avant Gardener’, which is probably the only song about gardening-induced anaphylactic  shock in the history of recorded music. One of Barnett’s lyrical strengths is making the specific universal, and when the crowd belts out “I’m not that good at breathing in” it’s a given that there are hundreds of different interpretations in the theatre.

The double whammy of ‘Nameless, Faceless’ and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’, Barnett’s most overtly feminist songs, draw some of the most passionate reactions of the night. The topicality of the former, which is about a misogynistic internet troll, is offset by the general anger of the latter. Barnett has said ‘I’m Not Your Mother…’ is not actually targeted at men necessarily, but anyone who looks down on another. None of that would matter if they were not good songs. They are both blinders, and Barnett gives it her all.

While Barnett is not a huge talker, she’s clearly happy to be there and is appreciative of her audience. She gets a present of some badges from a fan in the front row, which she accepts with grace. After the gig, she can be seen carefully picking them up and carrying them with her.

Other highlights include the sweet and witty new song ‘Small Talk’, and ‘Are You Looking After Yourself?’ which will speak to… well, anyone with parents really. Laura Jean and her saxophone reappear for a marvellous cover of the Go-Betweens’ ‘Streets of Your Town’, bringing a poignancy to their fellow Australians’ 80s hit.

The gig is over all too soon, finishing with the wonderful ‘History Eraser’. Barnett reappears, all by herself with a guitar, for a cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’. The band reappear for ‘Anonymous Club’, a hot bath of a song, and despite the hubbub of earlier, you can hear a pin drop during this one. ‘Pedestrian At Best’, her breakthrough hit, closes the night with the crowd screaming along. it’s not every artist who can get a crowd yelling along to self-loathing lyrics referencing Freud, but then, Courtney Barnett isn’t any ordinary artist.

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