by Robert Kerstens
When I reviewed their collaborative release Lotta Sea Lice a few weeks earlier, I listened to so much of Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett’s music that I honestly dreaded covering their Orpheum Theatre show. It was a shame; as a huge fan of both artists, the show had been on my radar for months, but the thought of rehashing my reviewing experience sounded like an exhausting ordeal. Luckily, my press pass got me prime real estate in the orchestra section, allowing me the rare luxury of sitting at a concert for the first time this semester. But even if I had been forced to stand, I still wouldn’t have any regrets about going to this show. In fact, I ended up standing the whole show anyways, captivated by the electrifying guitar work of Kurt Vile and his good friend Courtney.
Lotta Sea Lice was defined by the endearing kinship between Kurt and Courtney, from which the music was just a natural byproduct. But with Courtney’s wife Jen Cloher joining the tour, Kurt was left to be the third wheel. It was probably for the best that Jen tagged along, having written her recent self-titled album largely about the loneliness, lost confidence, and bitter envy she faced as Courtney’s career took off touring Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit.
It can’t be easy for Jen to be with a songwriter as successful as Courtney Barnett. Despite comparable talent and a longer career, Jen has lived in Courtney’s shadow ever since she dropped her debut. Accordingly, Jen’s opening act was a cathartic release of all the painful emotions that come from playing second fiddle to the person you love. Her raw folk wrung out every ounce of her soul, with searing lyrics and a powerhouse of electric acoustic guitar. It was an emotional gut punch that left me on the verge of tears.
The feelings in the music were enriched by wry and unflinchingly honest storytelling between songs. Although some stories covered benign topics like her love for the Doors or meeting Patti Smith, she wasn’t afraid to open up about Courtney and the strain her fame put on their relationship. Standing before an audience of hundreds, she shared the details of her life most people wouldn’t even admit to themselves. The intimacy almost felt inappropriate in the context of the Orpheum’s neoclassical opulence, but she played her melodies with a brooding force that more than filled the space.
Kurt and Courtney opened their set playing the first six songs of Lotta Sea Lice in the same order they appear on the album, with the exception of ‘Outta the Woodwork’ trading places with ‘Continental Breakfast.’ The songs were offered with little embellishment, featuring the same muddy guitars and drawled vocals found on the record. Kurt cycled through three different guitars in as many songs, nailing a dirty solo in each one. With Kurt on lead and Courtney on rhythm, the duo hit their stride playing songs that all began with the two trading lyrics over a carefree melody, which would repeat endlessly until it got lost in a vortex of guitar fuzz. ‘On Script’ was an excellent example, during which the pair vamped on the same waltzing riff, tangling their guitars together like the Spanish-moss hair hiding Kurt’s face.
While Kurt and Courtney sounded great together, they would be nothing without the Sea Lice, their backing band. In what was their first banter after 3 songs, they introduced their star-studded supporting cast: bassist Rob Laasko of The Violators, Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa on drums, and Katie Harkin of Sky Larkin on keys. Stella’s drumming was especially commendable, striking the perfect balance of shuffling steadiness and thudding force to push the tracks through thickets of brambly guitars.
The crowd lost their mind when Courtney finally busted out the opening lines of ‘Depreston’ after a half-dozen songs. Based on the crowd’s reaction, it seemed like more people came out for Courtney than for Kurt, even though Kurt had dominated the sound thus far with his untamable solos. It was refreshing to hear Kurt take on a more supportive role, adding harmonies that made for a fantastic duet with Courtney’s weightless vocals. While the songs they co-wrote sounded fine, they honestly sounded better playing on each other’s songs, whether it was Kurt’s ‘Pretty Pimpin’ or ‘Life Like This;’ or Courtney’s ‘Dead Fox’ or ‘Avant Gardener.’
If you were only familiar with Kurt Vile or Courtney Barnett’s solo work, this would not have been the show for you. It wasn’t a Kurt show or a Courtney show, but rather a show for the supergroup that forms when the two friends join forces. Unlike most supergroups, however, the collaboration didn’t feel forced or unnatural. Not only were their guitar styles complementary, but with their laid-back uniform of matching flannels and unkempt long brown hair, a person at the back of the Orpheum would be forgiven for thinking they were the same person.