Manchester is a city with music coursing through the blood. The north west of England has been the foundry for authentic British music for decades and the passion that the city’s iconic bands have hammered out on record has been passed on to the region’s music fans, who are one of the most ardent and knowledgable bunches of people you will ever have the pleasure of meeting. This is a city where musical genres don’t have demographic boundaries and a concert in one of the city’s many venues, large or small, will be populated by a multifarious selection of the city’s population who all share one thing in common: a love of live music. This week Courtney Barnett arrived at a sold out O2 Ritz and possibly experienced the only negative aspect that this musical obsession can throw up in a live environment. Her anxiety-ridden brand of garage punk would possibly attract an exclusively young audience in the past but as her star rises so does the age of the crowd tonight. This older demographic is possibly not as inclined to enter in to a heaving, swaying pit of younger bodies, preferring to appreciate the Australian’s astute lyrics from the balcony or the rear of the venue. Although there is certainly no lack of appreciation for the Melbourne native tonight, the shear passion and avid abandonment that would possibly accompany CB3 in other less musical cities is missing. It appears to throw Courtney into a bit of a funk, causing the evening to weave unpredictably towards what is ultimately a fine set, but more of this later.
Courtney Barnett has invited fellow antipodeans Big Scary along for the ride on this current tour and they certainly demonstrate an instinctive creativity, particularly during the middle of the set when the band suddenly throw off their more generic shackles to present a batch of authentic, off-kilter songs full of satisfyingly unpredictable rhythms and harmonies from the band’s founding members Tom Iansek and Jo Syme. The highlight of their set belongs to a track called Organism and its jazz-infused garage pop possesses a particularly invigorating spirit which the crowd certainly pick up on.
Courtney Barnett ambles on to the stage and the laid back Avant Gardener opens proceedings, immediately demonstrating Courtney’s fine ability to craft such lyrically astute songs. Dead Fox follows and it’s Velvet Underground undertones compliment the idiosyncratic lyrics which stumble raucously to an immensely satisfying conclusion. The more doleful Small Poppies provides a change of pace but is no less magnetic lyrically and the quality of this song is matched later in the set by the magnificent Depreston which is a lo-fi delight from start to finish. Whilst there is no denying the quality of Courtney Barnett’s songs so far, the atmosphere in the sold out Ritz feels somewhat subdued. Could it be that Manchester’s discerning music fans were allowing themselves to become so immersed in the shrewd observational songwriting that they were forgetting to lose themselves in the music? The reaction to the faultless Elevator Operator perhaps suggests that this is the case. The song is lyrically stunning but Courtney is clearly hoping for a more primal reaction to it musically and her energies appear to be waning. The economical response from the audience upon the song’s conclusion is clearly getting to her and she eventually exclaims that they are a particularly difficult audience to read and this was the reason why she wasn’t having a good time on stage. This stark honesty galvanises the crowd and the remaining tracks certainly benefit from a more energised response from everyone inside The Ritz, climaxing with a suitably rowdy appreciation of Pedestrian at Best before Courtney Barnett leaves the stage to a cacophony of feedback and approving applause.
The encore thankfully maintains the revitalised energy and a cover of The Saints’ Know Your Product, performed with the returning Big Scary is a joy and Courtney Barnett eventually hits a peak with a blistering performance of History Eraser which ultimately ensures that everybody leaves satisfied. It just took a while to get there.
For all interviews and features with Courtney Barnett, click here.
Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto