You know what’s a really good idea? Breweries hosting outdoor rock concerts on beautiful summer evenings! Surly Brewing capped off a double header weekend that started with Sylvan Esso with break out star Courtney Barnett Saturday night. I walked onto the grounds with Colin Campbell of The Shackletons. He took one look around and commented: “This is such a Minnesota crowd.” Asked to clarify, he explained that if you were head of the Tourism Bureau you’d want lots of photos of a hip, clean cut crowd congregating at a craft brewery lined with food trucks, on a perfect summer night in support of an adopted indie artist.
That about sums it up. Welcome to Minnesota. We like it here.
This was a night about female singer songwriters. Virginian Lucy Dacus kicked off the festivities with her rich, conversational voice. I honestly knew very little of Lucy outside of a song or two that is always on 89.3 but was blown away at the tightness of her and the band. There wasn’t anything fancy going on here. Just a smooth effortless show by a remarkable songwriter. Battling the sun in her eyes, Lucy muscled on and kept the crowd on their toes.
Lucy Dacus played a sold-out 7th St. show earlier in the year and while there, she saw the flyer for this very show and immediately texted Julian Baker and said, “With that line-up, It’s the coolest gig ever!”. Lucy Dacus wasn’t on the bill but the original opening band couldn’t make it, so Lucy got the call to open the show. She was ecstatic.
Julian Baker was up next. I was a little excited to see Julian. I have an appreciation for small bands with few people and since Julian Baker is just Julian, I have mad amounts of respect for her to be doing this all by herself (with occasional help from violinist Camille Faulkner), but still it’s just her up on stage pouring her soul out for the whole world to see. And pouring her soul is what she did.
There are many adjectives that can describe Julian’s music but the one that sticks out the most to me is “Haunting”. The songs she writes and performs stick with you on a different level. The music is very personal to the point where it feels almost voyeuristic into the personal diary of Julian. Pulling this off live was just amazing. Alone with just her Telecaster and a piano, she manages to make the sound feel bigger than it is. Pair that with her captivating voice and intense lyrics and the performance is mesmerizing. Occasionally she has violin back up which adds that extra bit of sadness to the song, but it is usually just Julian up there alone giving it all for us.
But the big Surly crowd was there for Courtney Barnett. At only 30 years of age she has quickly moved from a local Aussie plying her trade around Melbourne to international recognition. No small amount of credit goes to The Current. In its constant trolling the globe for worthy artists, they identified her unique style and immediately saturated the airwaves with songs from her 2015 full length debut Sometimes I Just Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Twin Cities listeners were quick to jump on the bandwagon and only 3 months after the album dropped, the station brought her in for a middle tier Rock The Garden slot. Doubtless, Ms Barnett was destined for success but it sure is nice to feel like we all spotted it first.
The first time I caught her band I certainly admired a number of her songs. Yet, there were still some undeveloped aspects which left me arguing we should wait and see. There’s nothing undeveloped about her 3 years later. That first catalog of songs was not quite deep enough. It’s getting there. She showed flashes of guitar greatness. But she opted to tour as a power trio. I felt like she was a bit overwhelmed by the need to simultaneously sing and play lead lines. Admittedly, that’s no mean feat. My impression was that the issue was easily addressed by adding another guitar. Finally, there was the issue of taking possession of the spotlight. Part of being Courtney Barnett is being self deprecating and eschewing the spotlight. On each subsequent trip through town I was really excited by her development. On Saturday night there was no doubt. Courtney Barnett has arrived and she’s out to save rock and roll.
Many of us started the week with the legendary Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders and that experience was fresh in my mind. So I was prepared to make some direct comparisons. Generally speaking, that’s a comparison to which few would willingly submit. I think the only way to project an artist’s future success is to objectively set them beside those that have stood the test of time. To ask if you truly believe that in 20 or 30 years they’ll matter. Ladies and gentlemen, she held her own. More than any other young break out artist I can think of, Barnett’s got the goods to go the distance.
So let’s consider those two beside each other for a minute. Both clearly worship at the altar of rock and roll as opposed to self cannibalizing fame. Like the old Del Amitri song says: “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” That’s part of a pandering for mass appeal. An effort to be huge. If not on the artist’s part, on the part of a label that wants to milk every possible dime out of their investment by pursuing a proven formula. Neither of these women seem the least bit interested going down that road. They walk on stage, strap on a guitar and rock. You want to know how Courtney sees things? When she leaves the stage, She leaves her candy apple red Fender Jazzmaster on stage screaming feedback long after she’s made her exit.
Hynde is the prototype. Lean, edgy and producing a signature sound which often echoes the greats who have gone before. Barnett also produces her own readily identifiable sound and my notes point to flashes of Kurt Cobain, Patti Smith and Neal Young. Her radio hits may be built around simple melodies and ironic lyrics but they are far from what she’s really about. Just as songs like Brass In Pocket provided The Pretenders a platform to reach a wider audience, to identify the band in that idiom is a mistake. Same goes for Courtney Barnett.
Both bands broke out young with a critically acclaimed debut album. Like Hynde, Barnett shows a huge stylistic range of influences. It’s like Easter eggs for her audience as well as a quality critical to building a loyal base. Both bands mix heavy bass driven rockers with simple, melodic ballads. That’s another critical quality if you’re doing 20 song, 90 minute sets to a diverse festival audience.
Neither panders. In each case, there are songs which seem designed first and foremost to please the band; to jump into a groove that gets them off. Invariably, these songs hearken to the music they grew up listening to. In the case of The Pretenders it was homage to Bo Diddley. In Barnett’s case, it was Nirvana, Patti Smith and Crazy Horse. I was really struck by how seamlessly she moved between the two songs that made up her encore. What began as a wandering, distorted guitar exploration reminiscent of Psychedelic Pill to her break out hit Pedestrian At Best.
And in that latter, closing song is the thing which differentiates the two. In many respects, it’s more a reflection of generations than these particular women. While Hynde’s persona is that of bullet proof rock and roll temptress, Barnett sings:
Put me on a pedastal and I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you.
Give me all your money, and I’ll make you Origami, honey.
Chrissie Hynde definitely does not make origami. She spills nails in the middle of the road.
Or the line from Avant Gardner which seems to encapsulate her view of what she does for a living:
The paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar.
I think she’s clever cos she stops people dyin’
That’s it in a nutshell. She wants to rock you and she wants you entertained. But she wants the focus on the music and not on Courtney Barnett. There’s something endearing in that and it seems so well matched to our self effacing Minnesota personalities. We’re kind of a match made in heaven.
How big can she become? The answer was there in the diversity of her audience. I watched 70 year old women singing along with Avant Gardner. And I listened to the 11 year old beside me sing Elevator Operator with all his heart. Rare is the artist who appeals to such a diverse range of fans.
On a Twin Cities evening which featured outdoor shows by the likes of The Jayhawks, a concert at Target Field, Aquatennial fireworks and The X Games, Surly Brewing was the place to be. A young star delivered. It’s only just the beginning.