Courtney Barnett / Vagabon

Danforth Music Hall, Toronto ON, July 9

Photo: Lindsay Duncan

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jul 10, 2018

On record, Courtney Barnett is first and foremost a lyricist. Live, on the other hand, she and her band channel pure and unbridled rock'n'roll. Barnett's latest Toronto appearance was raw, loud and achieved what so few rock bands are able to in 2018: it sounded dangerous.

The night began with an opening set from Vagabon, who set the tone with quietly dramatic indie rock ballads that swelled to noisy crescendos. The best moment was when singer-songwriter Laetitia Tamko and her three backing players shifted into an '80s synthpop direction for a new song. Her set ended on a low point, however, when the band departed and Tamko played two unaccompanied tunes that were largely drowned out by restless crowd chatter. For a set that started out strong, it was poor pacing.

After a brief break, Barnett's set began with the atmospheric, bluesy "Hopefullessness." This patient opening number was mellow at first, but it gradually built to a thundering crescendo laced with Barnett's jagged-glass guitar freakouts. Backed by a rhythm section plus a keyboardist/guitarist, the frontwoman's wild, dissonant solos were strongly reminiscent of Kurt Cobain — a similarity that was compounded by the fact that she was playing a left-handed Fender Jaguar.

The alt-rock similarities continued, as catchy anthems like "Charity" and "Nameless Faceless" were bolstered by loud-quiet dynamics and chunky power chords. The early part of the set was devoted to a complete run-through of this year's sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel, as the Aussie songwriter and her band played the entire new LP before ever dipping into her back catalogue. This meant that some old faves were missing from the set list, but the performances were so vital and energetic that the omissions never felt conspicuous.

When Barnett and company finally played some old material toward the end of the set, country-tinged anthems like "Avant Gardener" and "Depreston" struck the perfect balance between scorching rock muscle and subtle lyrical cleverness. Barnett rarely spoke between songs, and the simple lighting setup was just enough to highlight the dynamics of the songs without ever becoming obtrusive.

Closing the night with "Pedestrian at Best," Barnett and her three backing players ended with ragged screams and shrieking feedback that had the packed room roaring.

Ultimately, if the show had one weakness, it was that it made Barnett's cerebral recorded work seem tame by comparison. Hopefully, the band can get into the studio with Steve Albini immediately and record their very own In Utero. For now, rock shows don't get much better than this.

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