Courtney Barnett Was Fab in Houston Last Night

Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett Photo by Connor Fields

Courtney Barnett
White Oak Music Hall
February 18, 2019

Courtney Barnett draws plenty of comparisons to indie rock guitar goddesses like Liz Phair and St. Vincent, but her Houston show last night brought another legendary rock act to mind, namely The Beatles. Her mop top, doe eyes and left-handed approach to guitar were all Paul. She made her guitar gently weep for some tunes and there was something in the way she moved the crowd with all-out rockers like “Pedestrian at Best.” Her lyrics can be Lennon & McCartney-like, poetic ruminations on love and life that are best on display in wordy songs like “Elevator Operator.” The guitar intro to that one, its story of Oliver Paul, (like that loner Jojo), and the lyric about being on the roof – it all recalls the Beatles rooftop concert at Apple Studio. To put it simply, Barnett’s set last night was nothing short of fab.

But, don’t take our word alone for confirmation, ask any of the many fans on hand, the adoring mobs who showed in droves on a Monday night to indulge in a little Courtneymania. In our chat with Barnett ahead of last night’s set at White Oak Music Hall, we tried to recall a time she may have played Houston before and came up empty, causing the Australian artist to even worry a bit that it would be rude to forget visiting a city. No chance anyone in last night’s audience someday won’t recall seeing Barnett in her prime, moving from quiet, thoughtful notions like the show opener, “Hopefulessness” to thunderous edicts like “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch.”

The set kicked off around 9:20 with Barnett’s casual “Alright, how’s it going?” greeting and was over too soon at nearly 90 minutes of music and 17 songs. Most of the set was comprised of tunes from her latest award-nominated album, Tell Me How You Really Feel. As she is on the album cover, Barnett was bathed in red light at the start of the set, in the center of a semi-circle of amps, lights and her band mates, drummer Dave Mudie and bassist Bones Sloane.

click to enlarge Courtneymania in Houston - PHOTO BY CONNOR FIELDS
Courtneymania in Houston
Photo by Connor Fields
The trio reached back to 2012’s I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris for “Lance Jr.” Barnett told the crowd her grandmother loaned her money to produce that EP. Today, she and her partner, Jen Cloher, run their own record label. Some of the best received songs of the night were from her breakthrough debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, tracks like “Depreston,” which Barnett dedicated to the real estate agents in the house and had the crowd sing-songing to its closing lines. She even offered "Let It Go," from her collaboration with Kurt Vile, and said it was the first time she'd ever performed the song solo. But, most of the night was a showcase for the new work, with seven of its tracks offered for fans. Whichever album the song came from, the gathered didn’t mind. They appreciated whatever Barnett rolled out for them.

Much is noted about Barnett’s lyrics, and for good reason. ”Hopefulessness,” for instance, has the contemplative and timely line, “You know what they say, no one is born to hate, we learn it somewhere along the way.” She expresses a universal emotion when she sings “I’m not that good at breathing in,” for “Avant Gardener.” We run the risk of scorn at too much adoration, given the fact she wrote (and delivered smashingly last night) the lines, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you, tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you.”

But seeing her live was a chance for devotees to also witness her guitar prowess. She flexed that muscle all night, offering big, headbanging licks on songs like “I’m Not Your Mother…” That one, stationed mid-set, was followed by the bluesy “Small Poppies,” and that bled into the pop sensibilities of “Elevator Operator.” That trio of songs bridged the full set together by showing her six-stringed versatility. Coupled with her word-skills, its easy to see why Barnett is destined to travel a long and winding road of musical success.

click to enlarge Barnett flexed some guitar muscle at White Oak last night - PHOTO BY CONNOR FIELDS
Barnett flexed some guitar muscle at White Oak last night
Photo by Connor Fields

The Opener: Technically, there wasn’t a local opener on the bill, but Sunflower Bean vocalist Julia Cumming told the crowd it was the band’s “fourth time at this venue in a year, so pretty much we’re a Houston band now.” The audience reacted to the New York act’s set like a hometown crowd might, with plenty of enthusiasm for what the group offered. The band’s sound bounced effortlessly from danceable pop to rock histrionics courtesy of guitarist Nick Kivlen. Standouts of the set were “Fear City,” from the band’s new EP, King of the Dudes, “Come for Me,” and “I Was Home.” Cumming is a bit of a Kim Wilde doppelganger whose voice keeps you hanging on for its range - high notes for this song or hushed, husky tones for that one. She’s even got some 1980s dance moves, which she flaunted in the backstage wings during Barnett’s set closer, “Pedestrian at Best.” At front and center, Cumming worked the crowd into a frenzy, then said, “Yeah, that’s the Houston I’m talking about! I know what you’re like.”

Personal Bias: I couldn’t help but feel a little hometown pride for the fact that the crowd showed out for Barnett, one of music’s most exciting young talents. You were there, in big numbers, and you were about it, Houston, and all on a Monday night. Barnett seemed to appreciate the love. “Thanks for having us in this awesome venue. It’s been a really nice night,” she said with a heavy dose of sincerity before launching into “History Eraser,” the final song of the evening.

The Crowd/Overheard in the Crowd: “I really wondered what age group would be here. It’s kind of a mix,” a fan told his companion in the packed balcony, overlooking a sea of music fans. One of the bigger and more enthusiastic downstairs crowds I’ve caught at White Oak Music Hall recently.

Random Notebook Dump: Sometimes you know you’re in the right place by who you spot in the crowd and last night before even a note of stellar music was struck, I spied Matt Fries in the crowd. I knew the show was going to be amazing just because he was present. If you don’t know, Fries is a visual artist and sometimes musician whose work has long graced the city in the forms of intricate art cars, interactive installations like The Tripatorium and “The TréPhonos" his latest collaborative work with artist Jeanette Degollado and sculptor Julian Luna. The new work is situated in and celebrates Third Ward.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CONNOR FIELDS
Photo by Connor Fields

Courtney Barnett Set List


City Looks Pretty

Avant Gardener

Small Talk

Need a Little Time

Nameless, Faceless

I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch

Small Poppies

Elevator Operator


Are You Looking After Yourself

Sunday Roast

Lance Jr.


Pedestrian at Best


Let It Go

History Eraser
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.