REVIEW: Courtney Barnett at Summerfest

If you were looking for a show on the Summerfest lineup that was the polar opposite of Jennifer Lopez’s grand extravagant production the night before, Courtney Barnett’s Thursday night performance was just that. That being said, nobody, including Barnett, was likely looking for anything flashy when she took the stage at the Briggs And Stratton Big Backyard. With just a few small amps, flanked by her drummer and bassist, Barnett won over the crowd easily with a mix of indie rock charm and punk rock aggression.

Interestingly, the night opened on a softer note. “Tell Me How You Really Feel” opening track “Hopefulessness” kicked off the night, with a wandering, mood-setting tone to it. Things immediately picked up from there, though, as Barnett and band would move quickly from song to song with a fierceness about themselves. In many ways, it felt like a spirited garage band jam session had spilled out onto the Big Backyard stage.

Barnett, however, is truly in her own category when it comes to her skill on stage. The true highlights of the show were whenever she stepped (literally) into the spotlight to deliver blistering solos, often reminding you of guitar slingers of a different era. With a lean back and persistent snarl as she thrashed around with several different Fender Jaguars throughout the night, it felt like a callback to some sort of mix between Joan Jett and Johnny Thunders. While a lot of her songs featured a clean channel, the second she stepped on the distortion pedal, things literally kicked up a notch.

Barnett and co. persisted in a very humid night for around 90 minutes with no interruptions. A notable highlight was an over-the-top version of “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”, mood-lit in red while she took the song’s aggression out on her guitar. There was little downtime, save for guitar changes and an a slight delay when the band had to remember the start of “Charity”. The song came late in the lengthy set, so it’s totally excusable that a riff may have fallen out of memory for just a second. Barnett chimed in “I swear we’re a professional band” before nailing the riff and getting back into the groove. Barnett loosened up at that point, and later introduced “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party” as a Beatles cover, before an amped-up version of “Pedestrian At Best” to close out the night.

The comparison for any act’s live show is generally their recorded work, and Courtney Barnett showed on Thursday night that her live show is an extra dimension to the already great music that she has recorded. In many ways it was the K.I.S.S. method of a rock show; all you need is three great musicians and some energy to have a memorable performance. She went above and beyond with her set, and shined throughout, leaving the fans eager for the next time that her touring schedule will bring her back to Milwaukee.

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