Seeing Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile (as well as opening act Jen Cloher) play the stunning, high-ceilinged, stain-glass-appointed Cathedral Sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian was a truly breathtaking experience.
Jen Cloher, the night’s opener, is sweetly self conscious. Her emotionally-tinged vocals intertwine with poignant, autobiographical lyrics, especially on songs like “Strong Woman.” Cloher explains that the song was inspired by her childhood obsession with the classic arcade game, Galaga. She would go to the local corner store to play, but the neighborhood boys wouldn’t leave her alone, so instead of being Jen, she wore a cap and passed herself off as John. Shockingly, the kids bought it. As John, Jen reigned supreme over the corner store until one day, her mother came in, yelled “Jennifer, you come home this instant!” and blew her cover. The story lends a little insight into Jen’s small town Australian adolescence and gives depth to her almost throwback indie sound.
Cloher also happens to be the longtime partner (now rumored to be wife) of fellow Aussie and the night’s co-headliner, Courtney Barnett. They run an indie label together called Milk! Records. In interviews, both women give each other credit for fostering the other’s musical career, but in the last few years, Barnett’s career has skyrocketed. Cloher sings about the distance – both literally and emotionally – between herself and Barnett in her song “Forgot Myself,” and anyone who has ever dated someone successful feels this song yank at their heartstrings. “There’s only so much you can say in a text / Reading between the lines is hazardous / A slow reply can really mess with your head / I was feelin’ kinda free / Now I’m desperate,” she deadpans, and it’s impossible not to immediately identify with her fears of feeling so far away and alone.
Even with their 14 year age difference, the pair feels like a match made in music-and-love heaven. Connecting the dots, Barnett explains that she met Kurt Vile on the festival circuit and while the pair’s new album Lotta Sea Lice is all Barnett and Vile, one can’t help but hear Cloher’s self aware, shoe-gazing influence.
By the time the headliners take the stage, the audience was primed for Barnett and Vile’s combination of stunning harmonies, twangy riffs and emotive, even sentimental lyrics. They play with a backing band that includes a keyboardist, drummer (Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney) and backup guitarist that gives their sound a warm, gorgeous depth. Vile, known for both his role in The War on Drugs’ debut record and his subsequent solo albums, is all hair, moody flannel and combat boots, but despite the throwback grunge look, his words are soft, lilting, and well-enunciated. Barnett layers in floating harmonies that accentuate the tender quality of the classic indie rock sound of the album.
The pair sings about their similar, yet different ways of writing music in the album’s single, “Over Everything.” Vile spends all his time writing music, both at home and on tour, while Barnett waits for the moment of inspiration to strike. But by the end of the song, their voices meld to call out, “When I’m all alone on my own by myself / And there and another single one around I wanna dig / into my guitar, bend a blues riff that hangs…Over everything.”
The two played through their mesmerizing collaboration, as well as a few of each other’s songs. They played Barnett’s moody “Depreston” and raucous “Avant Gardener”, as well as Vile’s indie hit “Pretty Pimpin’.”
As the music echoes reverently off the church’s nave, the audience sits – rapt, silent. Some nod with their eyes closed while others sway almost imperceptibly. Without veering too far into cliche, the experience is nearly religious.
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s album Lotta See Lice dropped Friday and is now available via Matador. Buy it here!
Words and photos by Stephanie Varela Rheingold