Music

Intercontinental rock from Courtney Barnett and Vagabon

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Intercontinental rock from Courtney Barnett and Vagabon

Photos by Kiki Vassilakis

Stars began to appear over the stark industrial space of MASS MoCA, a smattering of constellations peeking through the enfolding darkness of the courtyard, as Courtney Barnett walked onstage and picked up her guitar with the same energy as someone who had just accidentally dropped their keys on the ground.

Starting low and slow, the opening of “Hopefulessness” played out into excited shrieks of the crowd as they sang with Barnett, who stood with her head cocked to the side as she sang, uttering the finishing lines like a warning, “I’m getting louder now/ Getting louder now.” Then she let ‘em have it.

It brought to mind a recent feature on the Melbourne artist in which drummer Dave Mundie and bassist Bones Sloane were asked why they jumped from their original group Immigrant Union to join their bandmate’s solo project. In reply?

“She’s a mega shredder.”

Barnett is a performer of very little onstage commentary. She laughed out a quick “thank you” between songs as if she was incredulous that anyone had even bothered to show up. She asked the audience if they’d like to sing along to “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence” as if she was introducing a new song at band practice. “It goes like this,” she offered with a grin as she mumbled through the chorus of “I don’t know/ I don’t know anything” with her eyes to the sky, playing each chord instructively.

Then, in songs like the seven-minute epic “Kim’s Caravan,” the band would come to life. She’d be bent over at the waist, swinging her guitar between her legs like a pendulum, strumming with just a flick of her palm as some real life, mega shredding boomed out from the shrugging rockstar.

In some of her most poignant songs, Barnett harnesses all the frustrations of what it like to simply exist as a woman in the world, let alone a woman in art, and it’s so gratifying to watch unfold as she performs. She spat and screamed through “Nameless, Faceless” and the punk rock “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” had her bellowing into the mic and tossing her guitar around as if it was a toothpick.

Barnett ripped out six other tracks from Tell Me How You Really Feel and paid a visit to Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit as well as the double EP A Sea of Split Peas, delivering narrative hits like “Avant Gardener” and the bopping “Elevator Operator”–both introduced with a nod to her Aussie hometown–or cathartic sing-alongs “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” and “Out of the Woodwork.” She groaned out the hook (“She’s so easy”) with such aggression that she nearly knocked the mic stand down with her mouth.

Some songs elicited a scattering of waving lighters. “Depreston” had the audience singing along to every word, gripping their chests in admiration for the song that’s a little bit about buying a house and a lot about growing up with a partner you love. They swayed to the chorus like it was a groundbreaking mantra, nearly singing over her, “If you’ve got a spare half a million/ you could knock it down/ and start rebuilding.” Tell Me’s “Sunday Roast” was irresistibly sweet.

In “Small Poppies,” the twanging, psych rock guitar progressed like a rolling thunderstorm as her low murmurs (“Oh the calamity/ I wanna go to sleep/ for an eternity”) turned into self-assured statements (“I don’t know quite who I am/ oh but man I am trying”) then gritty and electrified screams (“An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye/ I dreamed I stabbed you with a coat hanger wire”) as she attacked with lightning fast strumming before letting it slow to a stop.

Barnett is an artist who has become an icon thanks to her prolific and clever songwriting and it was a blast to listen to her words come to life paired with such clean and powerful instrumentals. Technically, her set sounded impeccable.

Hopping offstage after the magnificent “History Eraser,” the band returned to play an encore featuring the slow and steady “Anonymous Club.” It held the audience in quite a sweet moment before tearing into “Pedestrian at Best” as she shouted, “Put me on a pedestal/ I’ll only disappoint you.”

Ah, the ever present paradox: Barnett insists she’s nothing special and it only makes us starry-eyed.

The expressive Vagabon operated in a league of her own in the opening performance. There’s such power and depth to Laetitia Tamko’s vocals and it settled well with the sound of her bass and drum heavy rock band. She played through the star tracks from her standout debut Infinite Worlds like her breakout hit “The Embers” (aka “Sharks”), the rip-roaring “Minneapolis,” and the heartstring-plucking, slow burn of “Fear & Force” along with a brand new, unnamed track.

Seeing these two acts in one gorgeous venue on a breezy summer night, just reveling on the queens that are populating the rock scene right now, it’s enough to make your heart feel full.

Courtney Barnett with Vagabon. Thursday, July 12 at MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA.

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