It was a frigid Sunday night in Boston when Courtney Barnett took the stage at the House of Blues on Oct. 21. Over a 21-song set encompassing both new songs and old, Barnett and her supporting band gifted those in attendance with a mastered but at times warped performance.
American artist Katie Crutchfield, performing as Waxahatchee, set a high bar with her opening set. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, she mesmerized the crowd with original compositions, an unreleased track, and covers (Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits Of My Labor” and Kevin Morby’s “Downtown’s Lights”). Waxahatchee shined when she brought on Barnett’s tour guitarist, Katie Harkin, who contributed to her 2017 album “Out in the Storm.” The pair did not lack chemistry. In between songs, Crutchfield joked with Harkin that she was unaware of the World Series’ presence in Boston, to which Harkin, a Brit, responded that baseball forgot to invite the rest of the world. The highlight of their time together was “Chapel of Pines,” a song Crutchfield originally released under a different project (Great Thunder). While Crutchfield proved she could hold her own after Harkin left the stage, Harkin also demonstrated ability that exceeded her role as a touring guitarist, which could signal success in her future. Crutchfield’s use of lighting also merits praise. For most songs, they alternated between a soft yellow, a bright orange, and a deep purple. However, during “Chapel of Pines,” the yellow lights cascaded upwards during the repeated chorus of “Will you go?” in a sort of heavenly ascension. Overall, Crutchfield left the audience wanting more without stealing the spotlight from Barnett, making her a near-perfect opener.
While Barnett’s set alternated between fast and slow, it did so in a way that felt natural. Barnett and her band opened with “Hopefulessness,” the opener off her newly released album “Tell Me How You Really Feel.” The song’s closing lyrics — “I’m getting louder now / Getting louder now” — gave the sound engineers the perfect excuse to increase the set’s volume and intensity. The song’s closing solo nearly shook the building. That energy continued into “City Looks Pretty,” although an extended version of the song’s outro slowed things down. This allowed Barnett to play an older cut, “Avant Gardener,” which is featured in Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.”
The slow songs showed Barnett at her best. “Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack of Confidence” may not have stood out at the time, but Barnett played the song on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” later that week. She also played a new single, “Small Talk,” off an upcoming label compilation. It took Barnett’s tendency to write conversational lyrics — “Do you have any siblings? / I got a brother” — to the logical extreme. If her set ever dragged, it was during the extended solos of her older tracks: “Are You Looking After Yourself” was nearly eight minutes long and full of Barnett’s signature rambling tone.
Barnett also played a few quick cuts, the highlight of which was “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch.” The song is a bit of a sonic departure on “Tell Me How You Really Feel” album, displaying Barnett’s intensity and anger. During the performance, Barnett’s voice was reduced to a punkish groan, but the onslaught of lights and instruments did enough to make up for the misstep. Another fast song, “Elevator Operator,” demonstrated Barnett’s storytelling prowess. The song, a favorite of former President Barack Obama’s, was played with a driving drum beat and accompanying lights.
All that said, the emotional height of the night was Barnett’s cover of Gillian Welch’s “Everything is Free.” While Welch initially wrote the song in the aftermath of the Napster lawsuits, “Everything is Free” could not feel more relevant today. Barnett reappeared on stage for her encore alone and apologized in advance for what was about to follow. She told the crowd she was happy to have them here despite the lyrics they were about to listen to. In minimal lighting, Barnett strummed the opening notes on her acoustic guitar as the crowd fell silent, reveling in the charged, vulnerable rendition of Welch’s masterpiece:
“Everything is free now / That’s what they say / Everything I ever done / Gotta give it away / Someone hit the big score / They figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway / Even if it doesn’t pay.”
Barnett’s best performance being a cover does not take away from the concert as a whole. Indeed, the main takeaway from the House of Blues that night was that Barnett is extremely adaptable. Through the changes in intensity, tempo, and key, she kept control of her set, even as her voice failed her at times. In the end, during the Boston leg of her “Tell Me How You Really Feel” tour, Barnett let the audience feel just about anything.