Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile (and Sea Lice) (photo: Aaron Rubin)
Last week, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, the hippest purveyors of the latest, greatest, and most infectious indie record, took to a sold-out performance at the Fox Theater in Oakland.
Touring the nation in support of the highly-anticipated collaboration album Lotta Sea Lice, released on October 13, their stop in the Bay Area was number five of 19. The album, born out of each other’s mutual admiration and genuine knack for nailing certain idiosyncrasies of life, was recorded in eight days over the span of nearly 15 months.
Knowing that I was about to get a rare opportunity to witness the fruition in person, I chose to abstain from listening to the work beforehand — eager to hear the slightly monotonous, yet incredibly persistent, delivery of every message they had. It wasn’t easy. Being a professional in the music industry, it was all over my social media radar and the praise was high. From everybody, across all the boards. To say I was excited would be an understatement.
I arrived just in time to catch the beginning of opening act and other-bandmate of Barnett’s, Jen Cloher. It was something different, for sure, to see the entirety of the Fox Theater’s stage occupied by a single woman and her guitars. Sure, Barnett and Vile’s backing band, the Sea Lice, had their (surprisingly stripped-down) equipment rigged up on stage already so Cloher wasn’t close to being swallowed by the space. But usually with a band and a stage that size, people are spread out since there’s more to see. With Cloher, you had one singer-songwriter and a helluva focused crowd. It definitely felt like the most intense open mic that I’ve ever been to.
Cloher switched between a large, deep and heavy dreadnought and a smaller tenor guitar, and played the acoustics of the room to the advantage of the heavier low end throughout hers songs. For being performed by a single person with one guitar, her songs were remarkably dynamic — shifting in tempo and urgency, and exhibiting an overall resilience of character.
At one point early in her set, Cloher started a song called “David Bowie Eyes.” From there, the audience was hooked. She was somber, she was remorseful, she was hilarious, and she was too cool to be embarrassed — until she wasn’t. Catch her return to the Bay Area with a full band on January 24 at Cafe du Nord.
Exactly half an hour following the end of Cloher’s set, the PA stopped, the lights lowered, and the audience roared as Barnett and Vile entered the stage. For the first six songs, they played the opening six tracks from the record, but I had no idea of that at the time. I also had no idea that the record was a mixture of cover songs, Barnett originals, Vile originals, and original compositions between the two of them.
Every song was performed, I imagine, as it was played on record, or at least as close to it as possible. Each track existed separate of the rest, and there was no bleeding from one to the next nor extending of endings. Some banter and a minute or two later, they were on to the next one.
For the entire show, the intercontinental duo were backed by the Sea Lice: Rob Laakso on bass, Katie Harkins on keyboards, and Janet Weiss on the drums. The band stayed tight, hit the marks, and sounded great, as did the dual guitar wielding of Barnett and Vile. Something, however, felt forced — and for moment I had to wonder if these indie stars were feeling any pressure of their own hype, or if they were content in performing intimate and nuanced material in a room too large.
If they were, it didn’t show. I also couldn’t help but imagine Vile as the modern-day embodiment of a legacy started by the likes of Neil Young and Lou Reed. Likewise, Barnett was captivating in her delivery: a pure, open-hearted battle cry masquerading in monotony. They definitely felt more alive when they were harmonizing together.
But for the first half of the show, I explicitly recall looking forward to hearing the album version. I was appreciative of the rarity I was seeing, but eager for a proper delivery in a proper setting. Such as the next tune, the seventh song of the set. “This song is called ‘On Tour.’ Enjoy it, it won’t last long,” ” Vile told the audience. “This is about what we do.”
The pair livened up, even going as far to break out a harmonica for the Kurt and Courtney original “Blue Cheese” — a tune that Barnett apparently wrote when she was only 5 years old.
The set ended with the same track that ends their album: a cover of the song “Untogether,” originally by Belly. This track gave me goosebumps, and their harmonies were spot-on. It only affirmed my earlier suspicion that, when they harmonize together versus trade lines, they tap into something special. “Untogether” was the perfect blend of humor and charm juxtaposed against heart-wrenching reality.
They returned moments after exiting the stage for a three-song encore: one Gillian Welch cover (“Elvis Presley Blues”) and one of each other’s songs, Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin'” and Barnett’s cleverly-titled “Avant Gardener.”
It was no wonder they returned so quickly for the encore — they rode the lighting that struck during “Untogether” and carried the last three songs out of the building and on a cloud. Despite the record sounding immeasurably better than the live renditions in too-large-of-rooms, I would recommend the show to even casual fans of passion behind their songs.