Courtney Barnett outshines The National at Hill Auditorium

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 5:23pm

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On June 25, Courtney Barnett opened for The National at Hill Auditorium. Hill is a big venue, and people were still filing in when Barnett took the stage. She began with “Avant Gardener,” a song whose title is so endearingly clever that I wish I’d thought of it myself. 

I’ll say now that I wasn’t a huge fan of Barnett before hearing her live. Something about her speak-singing felt overly stylized, and her lyrics seemed too crammed with Dylanesque forced rhymes. Live, she was a whole new ball of wax. Barnett is smaller than I expected, pixie-like, with a long mullet that made me fantasize about getting the same haircut. She sort of looks like Shailene Woodley. She came across as both intimidatingly cool and familiar, like someone you’d strike up a conversation with at a co-op party. 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was so incredible about Barnett’s performance. Her voice isn’t lovely, exactly; she mostly yells or speaks along with the music. She’s an exceptional guitar player, but that alone doesn’t explain it. I think it’s her enthusiasm, the unapologetic excitement with which she performs. Her whole set had the energy of that scene in “Back to the Future” where Michael J. Fox plays Johnny B. Goode. She hopped around the stage, her feet constantly shuffling and moving. As she sang, Barnett dipped her guitar into a never-ending series of maneuvers, as if she were the professional partner in a “Dancing with the Stars” tango and her guitar was the celebrity. At one point she leaned forward, left leg rising behind her like a figure skater, as if she’d become Tonya Harding on season 26 of “Dancing with the Stars.” My point is that Barnett was completely mesmerizing. The only person she even remotely reminds me of is a young Melissa Etheridge, who I’ve never seen live but whose early concert videos show the same kind of physicality. Barnett’s head-banging was no less thrilling. 

The National came onstage a few minutes after Barnett’s giddy farewell (“Thank you!” in a ripper Australian accent). The large screens on each side of the stage flashed pixelated videos as they set up, which reminded me of those old ads about movie piracy in which illegally downloading a movie is compared to stealing purses and televisions. Unfortunately, The National’s performance was as ineffective as those warnings.

They began with “You Had Your Soul With You” from their most recent album, I Am Easy to Find. It sounded good in a tight, controlled way — the opposite of Barnett’s freewheeling, experimental sound. The next few songs were also from I Am Easy to Find: “Quiet Light,” “The Pull of You,” “Hey Rosey.” They all sounded overproduced to the point of flatness, and the instruments were so loud that I could barely hear frontman Matt Berninger’s voice. I could decipher a few words thanks to Berninger’s habit of acting out the lyrics in a series of jerky motions that looked uncannily similar to the five movements from “The OA.”

Once, Berninger walked out along a side aisle and pinned an uncomfortable-looking audience member up against the wall, plucking the man’s baseball cap from his head and singing plaintively to him. The guy laughed nervously and darted away as soon as Berninger moved on. This episode, like so many in the show, was both indulgent and bizarre. I don’t quite know why Berninger’s physical exhortations were so irritating, but maybe the raw, unassuming quality of Barnett’s performance primed me with a low tolerance for theatrics. 

The National’s odd showing at Hill was a personal disappointment, since last fall I had a phase in which I was very into their music. For a full month, “Start A War” played in my headphones while I walked to German class. There’s something innately pleasing about hearing your favorite songs live, and this was certainly the case with “Carin at the Liquor Store,” “Green Gloves” and “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” Still, there was a calculated element to the delivery of these older songs that I found off-putting, as if the band were simply running through the motions.

I don’t like The National any less after seeing them live, but it’s now clear that they should be placed in the category of bands that are much better on Spotify than they are on stage. They share this distinction with many respected musicians. Sources (my mom and Reddit, respectively) say Bob Dylan is now apathetic onstage, and that Modest Mouse, Lauryn Hill, Oasis and The Monkees have all given lackluster performances. The startling differences between Courtney Barnett and The National at Hill Auditorium demonstrated with devastating clarity the two types of musicians: those whose charisma is a supplement to their talent, and those for whom the anonymity of a recording booth is a welcome cloak.