On Sunday, the final day of Governors Ball was canceled due to weather and several artists billed to play that day scrambled to find a way to play elsewhere within NYC.
Indie rock darling Courtney Barnett was the only one offering a free gig, popping up in the hipster epicenter of New York at Williamsburg’s Rough Trade NYC record shop. A line wrapped around the block as people stood in pouring rain several hours early to lock down one of the 150 or so spots inside the tiny performing space at the back of the shop.
I talked to several inside in the moments before Barnett and her band would take the stage. Several were people who had circled Barnett on their Sunday schedules for Governors Ball as their can’t-miss performance of the day.
This was also the case for me personally, marking the 10th time I’ve seen the Aussie live before. Just a few weeks earlier I caught her set at Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama where she delivered one of the weekend’s most memorable sets. That one came less than 24 hours after she delivered a magical performance on Saturday Night Live that was the talk of the music blogosphere the next day. It’s part of the reason seeing her in New York just a few weeks later became so important for me to catch.
Before she took the stage, a variety of Nirvana tunes were amidst the rotation on the venue’s PA system. As members in the crowd enthusiastically sang to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” while standing in wait, it helped piece the puzzle together even clearer that Barnett’s grunge sound has been sorely missed by a fair amount. That she was even billed to play SNL was a huge victory — very few independent artists get those major TV spots.
Her album Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit helped earn her a GRAMMY nomination for Best New Artist. On “Small Poppies,” a track from that album, Barnett sings “Oh the humanity, I want to disappear into obscurity.” It’s becoming clearly evident that this is soon becoming a pipe dream as she begins to cross from the indie to the mainstream.
Barnett didn’t come to Rough Trade to deliver some sort of half-assed makeup show that night. She played a full show well beyond the time she probably would’ve had at Governors Ball.
Barnett’s stream of consciousness lyrics are not easy to retain to your memory, yet I caught quite a large portion of the crowd chanting them with ease. As great as these songs sound on record, watching tracks like “Small Poppies” and “Elevator Operator” slowly build towards Barnett’s Cobain-like thrashing of the guitar (like Kurt she’s also a lefty) in person was a sight to behold. Each time the crowd’s enthusiasm built right alongside it. People turned to each other and shook their heads in disbelief by Barnett’s sheer bad assery.
What also makes Barnett’s live show so affecting is its perfect imperfection. She flubbed the last verse in her hit song “Pedestrian at Best,” missed a riff here and there in other songs but never let it slow her down. There’s a certain humanity to watching it that people seem to connect with.
Barnett’s set included a cover of “New Speedway Boogie,” her contribution to the upcoming Grateful Dead tribute album Day of the Dead, as well as a couple new tracks like the ultra strong “Three Packs a Day.” Barnett is showing no signs of slowing down despite non-stop touring over the past several years, which is good news for all of us.
I got the sense from eavesdropping on conversations around me that the hipsters are a little worried they might be losing Barnett to the mainstream sometime soon. At Coachella back in April, Barnett’s crowd at the Outdoor Theatre stage was not vast, proving that she isn’t quite there yet. But she’s only one full album into her career and has already found herself in the kind of spotlight her indie contemporaries go a decade without sniffing.
Through it all, Barnett has not lost any of her cheekiness. After closing her set with “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” my favorite from her last release, Barnett came back to play an encore.
She bantered back and forth with the crowd, playing a medley of 30 second snippets of cover songs, from “Stairway to Heaven” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“Do any of you remember Dawson’s Creek?” the Aussie asked before getting the crowd to singalong to Sixpence None the Richer’s 90s one-hit wonder “Kiss Me.” It’s the most hipster thing I’ve ever witnessed and it was beautiful. I’m willing to share Barnett with the masses if it means her brand of tunes catches on the way it should. We should all be for that.