I’m back at Surly Brewing’s outdoor concert space once more, today for Courtney Barnett and Julien Baker. I’ve been waiting for this show for months. I’m in right before 7:00 PM, with just enough time to grab a beer and make my way to the stage.
Mempisian singer-songwriter Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle has been a recent obsession of mine. The record came out in 2015 and is Baker’s debut LP. Her second record, Turn Out The Lights came out last year to immediate acclaim. Baker’s music is exceedingly personal, soulful, sad, hopeful, heartbreaking. There’s no amount of mental exercise or will steeling that will adequately prepare me for this set: it’s going to get heavy out here. I’m double fisting liquid courage. Here she comes now…
Without much ado, Baker picks up a Strat and gives us a little wave. Song one is “Funeral Pyre,” from Turn Out The Lights. Her crowd is already sizable and as the first song wraps, I feel the space filling up behind me. She’s sucking everyone in. Few people talk. There’s little movement. We’re ensnared. Song two is “Appointments,” the lead single from Turn Out The Lights. The last chorus has me tearing up already. I really didn’t make it very long. Oh boy…
Baker exists mostly as a solo act, relying on guitar pedals and keyboard effects to give her songs padding. For a few songs she invites a violinist, Camille Faulkner, to the stage – her addition is soft and full and really brings a renewed depth to the sonic pool.
Julien is solo again for song five, “Rejoice,” from Sprained Ankle. This is my most treasured song and I am a full-on mess, weeping and sniffling and beaming and wiping my face. This music really just pushes all of my buttons: a vocalist with immense lift in her register switches, spacious, haunting guitar tones, introspective and clever lyrics. I just can’t handle it.
The rest of the set is a blur. It’s mostly songs from the new record, with Faulkner coming back out and filling in here and there. Julien speaks little, but when she does, it’s to discuss how beautiful the sunset is, how proud she is to share the stage tonight with such powerful and talented women. Her stage presence, as her songs are, is delicate but commanding. She closes with “Turn Out The Lights,” finally stomping the box and turning up the intensity. And she’s gone, exit stage left, no goodbye. I see her hug Courtney Barnett, who’s been watching from side stage, seemingly just as awestruck as we are. Okay, time for another beer and a cigarette, some reconstruction needs to happen here…
Courtney Barnett, from Melbourne, Australia, is also a new phenomenon. After a string of EP’s in 2012 and 2013, Barnett released her first studio album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, in 2015. In the subsequent years, Barnett has been rabidly active with a near-constant touring schedule, a collaborative record with Kurt Vile, and a second LP of her own, this year’s Tell Me How You Really Feel.
Much like Baker, Barnett enters our view suddenly and without warning. She’s got a full band behind her, with keys, drums, and bass. This is a rock band. It’s quick and energetic from the start, a stark but welcome change of pace from Julien Baker’s quiet introspection. She’s wearing all black and sporting a black guitar, unkempt hair, and manic energy.
The set starts right off with “Hopefullessness,” the opening track from Tell Me How You Really Feel. This song starts off with a slow, meandering riff that slowly builds into a drunken stagger as the band fills out the harmony, a great introduction to the jejune yet genuine sound Barnett has built a reputation on. Barnett and band play for a full two hours. We get a full spectrum, songs from all points of her career. This music gets the crowd moving, finally, and provides some much-needed counter-balance to Julien Baker’s brand of still sadness.
As the set ends I make my way to the far back of the field and watch the last song, “Pedestrian At Best,” from atop a picnic table. I sip one last beer and watch the crowd writhe.