Duets in popular music are at best a mixed bag. For every Marvin and Tammi, there’s a Jagger and Bowie, and for every Golden Ring, there are three Watch the Thrones. Though these shortfalls stem from everything from the egos of the artists involved to profit-centered motives, more often than not the disappointment occurs because, simply, the musicians involved don’t mesh creatively and artistically.
It was for this reason I found myself worried when, a few months ago, I read that two of the more acclaimed (and two of my favorite) singer-songwriters of this generation of rock, Courtney Barnett, and Kurt Vile, would be releasing an album, and touring through my beloved Saint Paul as a duo. Nevertheless, being a fan of both of their bodies of work, I decided to attend the concert anyway and find out for myself if they could buck the trend, and produce something worthwhile.
One of the more under-appreciated aspects of Courtney Barnett’s rise to fame is her penchant for tastefully surrounding herself with like-minded (and talented) acts and collaborators. From the album with Vile to touring with the likes of Chastity Belt and Bully, Barnett seems to have a Midas touch of Rock and Roll. It’s no surprise then, that this extends to her personal life. When I say this, I’m referring to Barnett’s wife and occasional collaborator Jen Cloher, herself a singer-songwriter, who opened Wednesday night’s show at the Palace Theater.
A rocker as well as songwriter by trade (at least on her most recent release), Cloher surprised me by walking on stage with nothing more than an acoustic guitar. For the next 30 minutes, she offered up what felt like a take on VH1 Storytellers, interweaving story, song, and soul seamlessly.
From the get-go, Cloher’s chops were on display. Save Me From What I Want was powerful and relatable, and the audience responded with resounding applause upon its conclusion. Following the first of many lengthy stories that featured, among other things, a profession of love for The Doors, Cloher sang David Bowie Eyes, which, even in its acoustic form, rocked harder than the rest.
The next few songs were relationship-centered, with Sensory Memory addressing her relationship with Barnett, and her touring life, and Kamikaze Origami about attracting someone radically different from yourself. Strong Woman ended the set on a high note, leaving the audience buzzing with anticipation for the main act.
Being a long-time fan of live and oftentimes obscure music, I’ve seen my fair share of half (or completely) empty shows, and while it can feel like a treat to see a band you care about in the company of a select few believers, there’s nothing quite like the chatter, anticipation, and energy that a sold-out crowd brings. This night at The Palace was very sold out, and you could tell. The audience had high expectations for their heroes and delivered expected rousing cheers at 9:00 sharp as they walked on stage.
Fortunately, they delivered. Leading with album opener Over Everything wasn’t unexpected, but established an easy groove the rockers would roll with all night. Soothing, and familiar Vile-ish guitar licks set the stage for the song, while the pair traded off lines, fills, and verses like great duet pairings of the past. My nerves were quelled, at least for the moment.
Let It Go had more of a country groove, and saw Vile take up an acoustic guitar, a move he would revert to every so often throughout the show. The most conventionally intense number of the evening, Fear like a Forest, followed, boasting a heavy southern rock groove that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Gov’t Mule album. It was the most conventionally “intense” number of the evening, which isn’t saying much given the laid-back approach of the collaborators, but it was a welcome change of pace and showcased Vile’s immense (and often overlooked) skills as an axeman.
The rolling country picking of Continental Breakfast and the well-written Outta the Woodwork returned the show to it’s more mellow form, setting the tone for On Script, probably the jammiest tune of the night. The highlight here was the jazzy drumming of Janet Weiss, the talented, and legendary player from Sleater-Kinney, who, along with the rest of the band, turned in a stable, if not particularly flashy performance all night long. One more as a duet came before the familiar riff and lyrics of Barnett favorite Depreston. The audience adored it, and it was fun to hear Vile add his fills to the well-known tune.
After Briefly returning to their album (strangely titled Lotta Sea Lice) for Blue Cheese (Which Vile dedicated to Idol Bob Dylan, who was playing across the street at the Xcel) the duo returned to the Courtney catalog for Dead Fox, a lesser known, but stellar tune from her acclaimed debut full-length, “Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.”
The pair closed the main set with a cover, Belly’s “Untogether,” a song I wasn’t familiar with, but enjoyed. The set break gave me time to reflect upon my initial concerns. The set certainly didn’t feel like Sonny and Cher, or some other iconic pop duos of ages past, but it didn’t aspire to be. It sounded, simply, like two highly skilled rockers and writers playing an impressive set while working to their own individual strengths, which was all a fan can ask for. The only real shortcoming of the set was the predictability, as they’d mostly stuck to their album, playing tracks in order, and only playing a few well-known staples from their respective back catalogs.
This changed the moment the duo took the stage for the encore. Rather than bring out the whole band, Kurt and Courtney came out alone together, the former again wielding the acoustic guitar he’d so effectively utilized throughout the set. After a minute of bantering, a familiar melody came to the forefront, that of a Gillian Welch song, Elvis Presley Blues, from her epic “Time (The Revelator).”
I could go on for days about why the song is important to me, and why hearing the two cover it felt like a special moment but I’ll leave it short. The song is gorgeous, and playing it felt like a manifestation of the folk and bluegrass influences that subtly reside in the work of both Kurt and Courtney. It was the high point of the evening for me, as well as a sort of affirmation of why I love live music.
The set finished off with a pair of hits, Vile’s college radio smash Pretty Pimpin’, and Barnett’s breakout single Avant Gardener. The latter was particularly impressive and saw an audience singalong, an accomplishment when you consider how densely packed her verses tend to be lyrically. At this point, the two waved goodbye and walked off the stage they’d just conquered. My fears were once and for all allayed, and for a minute, all was well in the rock and roll universe.