Not long after I had taken my seat at the Sydney Opera House, the lights dimmed and the audience began to cheer excitedly.
Before Courtney Barnett took the stage, we were warmed up not with a support act but with a Welcome To Country, recognising the traditional owners of the land upon which the concert was taking place. It struck me that this was the first concert I had been to where this had happened, but then Courtney Barnett’s show at the Opera House was in many ways different to most concerts.
She walked out onto the stage with the three musicians in her backing band and launched into ‘Hopefulessness’ from her new album. As red spotlights illuminated her, she sang the first lines of the show:
“You know what they say, no one’s born to hate”
It had never been clearer that Barnett was using the influence she has garnered over the past few years to be a force for positive change. While she gained attention with her earlier work chronicling the mundane, everyday aspects of her life, these new songs showed a more abstract, yet more personal approach to songwriting. Seeing them live, it seemed that the new songs were louder, angrier, even. Which is only fitting, given the new album deals with themes like sexism, self-doubt and internet bullying.
The stage was set up sparsely with a few strands of fairy lights and some small spotlights behind them, all of which made it look quite small and far away in a venue as grand as the Opera House. But Barnett and her band filled the room, the songs growing to such an immense size it was hard to believe that Barnett was the only guitarist for most of the songs.
What stood out the most, though, was her voice. It was the first time I had ever experienced someone sounding better live than in the studio. Any of the usual criticisms of her almost spoken-word style were impossible to fathom, the songs performed became their definitive versions.
But while songs like ‘Small Poppies’ and ‘Nameless, Faceless’ soared to immense sizes, Barnett still managed to make it feel like an intimate performance in front of a few friends. In between songs, she spoke to the audience not as a performer addressing a crowd of fans but as a friend checking up on us. Mid-way through her setlist, she stopped and said “How are you doing? Are you ok?”, and then answered when someone in the crowd asked her the same. It’s these little touches that made the her seem all the more genuine, and helped in her goal of making sure audiences feel comfortable at her shows.
As great as it was to see Barnett perform some of my favourite songs of hers, the best part of the show came from a cover she performed. She walked back onstage for the encore without her band and was handed an acoustic guitar. The only light in the venue came from a single spotlight illuminating her as she stood alone on the stage and performed Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything Is Free Now’. The audience, still standing from the encore, were deadly silent for the first time all night. Barnett’s rendition of the song, a lament about money in the music industry, was hauntingly beautiful. All up, it was one of an infinite number of incredible moments throughout the show. Courtney Barnett showed herself as an immense talent, and a force for good in the world.