- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
Touring in support of their recently released Lotta Sea Lice collaboration, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile made landfall in Austin, Texas, for the final night of their five week mini-tour. The sold out show took place at the Moody Theater (no relation unfortunately) where the Austin City Limits TV show is also filmed. As would be expected, the venue is studio quality, replete with a large rectangular stage, lower level of standing room only, and two levels of what looked to be pretty plush stadium seating. Given the primary purpose of the venue, the lighting, sound system, and staging are state of the art if not a little austere.
Barnett’s spouse, Jen Cloher, on her first foray to the States gamely opened the show, supporting herself playing acoustic guitar. With Austin being a singer/songwriter Mecca, she was warmly received by the crowd which was pretty much filled out when she began. Given her short six song set, it was surprising that her focus wasn't more on her self-titled LP from this year, but with her deeper catalog kudos to her for playing what she wanted. She was very open and engaging between songs and displayed a wry sense of humor. Most songs were accompanied by an explanatory snippet which was appreciated given the short set and likely unfamiliarity by a good chunk of the audience. ‘Sensory Memory’ was written in reflection of being the one waiting at home while Barnett tours and was an early standout. Cloher hit her stride fully by the end of the set with the last two songs being particularly impactful - her intensity and passion in singing the older ‘Rain’ was particularly notable. And her story leading into the punchy ‘Strong Woman’ was hilarious and gave context to the song that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Apparently she was an ace Galaga player back when she was ten and posed as a boy named Jon at the local arcade where she was legendary until her mother tracked her down one day and ratted her out as Jennifer. Probably devastating at the time, it framed her closer well.
Vile and Barnett took the stage shortly thereafter with their ace three piece band (aka The Sea Lice) in tow. Stella Mozgawa, drummer for Warpaint was the ringer, but Rob Laakso on bass and Katie Harkin on keyboards rounded things out well. Not nearly as conversational as Cloher, with only a few quips from Vile throughout the evening, the duo did justice to the LP playing most every song and included a few solo tracks and an additional non-album cover along the way. I’ve seen Vile twice before, but never Barnett, and he did not seem to be his usual jovial self. When they took the stage it looked like there was either a bit of initial confusion or that Barnett was going to say something, but Vile said “let’s just go” and off they went into ‘Over Everything’ to kick things off. The interpretations of the album tracks were pretty well by the book, but Vile did stretch things out in places and what he lacked in charm this night he made up for in creativity. His version of Barnett’s ‘Out of the Woodwork’ was a clear highlight of the show and something about this song clearly connects with him. He is undoubtedly a talent and his last two albums show an artist fully hitting stride. No one else these days can keep a six minute plus song so engaging.
Barnett on the other hand seemed happier to be there, smiling through a good part of the set, and while not really engaging the audience much, she seemed particularly energized playing several of her own songs. ’Depreston’ and ‘Avant Gardener’ were clear favorites with the crowd with Vile providing some jazzy guitar during the former that fleshed out her normally stripped down sound. Barnett also shined on the cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ which itself is a reinterpretation of the blues/folk standard ‘John Henry’. This song served as the beginning of the encore and was the height of their collaboration with Barnett’s earnest vocals and Vile’s expert picking on display. As it was on the album, their cover of Belly’s ‘Untogether’ was another touching moment and particularly poignant given it was the last night of the tour.
Each of the band members had their chance to shine as well. Laakso put down his bass to play slide guitar which was the perfect complement on the spare ‘Untogether’. Harkin’s keyboard workout on Vile’s ‘Life Like This’ was another highlight. And Mozgawa on drums, well, she was worth the price of admission putting everything into each song. Even when the song required little of her she gave it her all and connected with the other artists every chance she got with Vile wandering over to the riser a few times. I overheard several people talking about the “drummer” as we cycled out of the venue with someone commenting “you don’t normally notice the drummer”.
Maybe the show didn’t quite reach the heights I was hoping for, and engagement between Vile and Barnett was limited - mainly keeping to their corners with Barnett looking pleased when Vile wandered her way later in the set. They come across a bit like the shy kids at school who have a talent, but are reluctant to bring that together. Nonetheless, it was a worthwhile evening of a primarily laid back performance that may not go down as legendary, but certainly a unique confluence of talent that I was happy to have had the opportunity to observe. It was cool to see the performers lock arms for their final bow of the tour, but if they would have brought Cloher back out to be part of that it would have been the type of extra spark that the show could have used from time to time.
Photo Credit of Encore Bow: Dan Fox, Austin, Texas