Northside 2014: Courtney Barnett and Benjamin Booker
Courtney Barnett by Peter Senzamici for Bowery Presents
Brooklyn, New York -- Day Three of Northside at the Music Hall of Willamsburg featured two artists trying to add something new to music genres as old as time. New Orleans musician Benjamin Booker puts his own personal spin on the blues, while Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett applies her witty, stream-of-consciousness lyricism to folk music. Both artists had an excellent backing band, helping amplify their unique sound.
Benjamin Booker is a really good singer and a really really good guitar player. Being I was largely unfamiliar with his music (he’s only released one single so far), 45 minutes of strong pipes and bluesy guitar was just fine by me. I couldn’t really understand the lyrics of Booker’s songs, but, just like the best blues musicians, he communicated the tone and feeling of the song through his sad, soulful voice and his expressive guitar playing.
From the way he plays it, you can tell Booker is in love with playing guitar. His style is very naturalistic – he looks like he was born to play the instrument – yet it’s clear he’s put a ton of work into his craft. At the end of his closing song, after some particularly incendiary guitar playing, Booker threw his instrument down on the stage, smashing its headstock. He then thanked the audience, picked up his Nearly-Headless Guitar, and left the stage. Even if you didn’t know every song, it’s hard to argue with a good old-fashioned rock 'n roll show.
The main appeal of Courtney Barnett’s music is her one-of-a-kind songwriting – no one really writes lyrics like she does. Therefore, I was really curious about how she would sound live, where musicality often takes precedence over lyricism. Fortunately, Courtney and her band, the aptly named Courtney Barnetts, brought the music as well as the lyrics.
As soon as the set started with “David,” it was clear the trio wasn’t there to just reproduce their album on stage. With a loud and hard-hitting rhythm section, the songs took on a punk rock energy. This edgier sound was matched by a set of entertainingly creepy animations projected behind the drummer, including a creature that looked a lot like the police sketch of The Yellow King on “True Detective.”
On guitar, Courtney was very interesting to watch. She didn’t play her instrument as much as she scratched and pawed at it. As unorthodox as her playing style was, it was hard to argue with the result. All her songs went into an extra gear live thanks to the musicianship of Courtney Barnett and the Courtney Barnetts.
Not only was she fun to watch as a musician, Courtney also had some very entertaining stage banter. Her rambling banter was very reminiscent of her equally rambling lyrics. Before she played her last song, Courtney took questions from the audience, including where she was born (Sydney) and what her middle name is (Melba). After the Q & A session, she launched into a particularly rocking version of her best song, “History Eraser.” As the song came to a raucous close, Courtney slid her guitar against the amps, the drum set, and even gave it to a crowd member while she messed with the distortion and effect pedals.
For an encore, Courtney came back on stage by herself to play one song solo. After about ten solid minutes of guitar-tuning (I’m guessing giving your guitar to a crowd member to play with isn’t great for keeping it in tune), she performed a poignant rendition of her new song “Depreston,” an equally funny and sad number about the dispiriting process of suburban house-hunting. Turning sad into funny is one of Courtney’s greatest strengths, but given the opportunity, she can turn funny back to sad, and the result is even more affecting.
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