Iron Horse, a cozy Northampton music venue now in its fourth decade of operation, is not unlike a thrift shop. Every piece of the event space—from the speakers that dangle from holes in the ceiling tiles to the knotty wood used to build a precarious upper level—seems to have a past life of its own. If the black-and-white pictures on the wall could talk, they’d likely tell you about the time Courtney Barnett enchanted a packed house with nothing but her six string and infectious anti-charisma.
Barnett, a Melbourne-based rocker, has achieved global acclaim since her 2014 debut EP A Sea of Split Peas: The singer-songwriter received rave reviews for her 2018 album Tell Me How You Really Feel and recorded an MTV Unplugged set in 2019. A little over a year ago, Barnett played the cavernous House of Blues in Boston. To find the Aussie on the stage of Iron Horse, a venue with a max capacity of roughly 170, in 2020 is a happy anomaly, the intimacy suiting the increasingly in-demand artist well.
Three of Barnett’s biggest hits—“Avant Gardener,” “Need A Little Time,” and “Nameless, Faceless”—marked the beginning of her Jan. 24 set, which became increasingly tailored to the Massachusetts crowd’s requests as the night went on. Alone on stage with her guitar, Barnett filled out her songs by encouraging the crowd to echo her “not alone” refrain in “Sunday Roast” and sing along to the guitar melody of “Dead Fox.” Prior to performing the latter track, Barnett strummed the opening chords of The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” remarking she noticed the similarities between the two songs after she recorded “Dead Fox” in 2015.
“Don’t tell anyone about that Cure thing,” Barnett warned, jokingly. “I don’t want to get sued.” (For what it’s worth, I think it would be a bit of a stretch, and pathetic on The Cure’s behalf.)
The small space afforded Barnett the opportunity to interact with audience members throughout the show. She responded to song requests, answered quick questions between numbers, and even asked a fan for a refresher when she forgot one of the verses of “Let It Go,” a song she wrote with Kurt Vile in 2017. On recordings, Barnett sometimes sounds cool and detached, her vocal delivery the sonic equivalent of tossing a paper airplane out of a window and not sticking around to see if anyone picks it up. At Iron Horse, Barnett displayed an uncharacteristic stage presence that warmed up her usually punchy rambling.
Before performing “Depreston,” Barnett highlighted one of the conundrums of playing at a smaller venue: having nowhere to go between the regular set and the encore. The greenroom was apparently downstairs—earlier in the night, opener Hachiku got the crowd to “scare” Barnett by stomping the ground of the dancefloor. Even without the tease of a brief exit, the crowd gave Barnett the encore treatment, flooding the stage with applause. Barnett rounded out the night with “History Eraser,” “Untitled (Play It On Repeat),” The Lemonheads’ “Being Around,” and Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free,” the latter two a couple of covers repurposed to fit her charming, deadpan delivery. Barnett didn’t write the lyrics or the chords, but she performed the songs lovingly, as though she bought them from a thrift shop.
Featured Image by Rayan Habbab / Heights Staff