Artfully understated – Courtney Barnett was more than a worthy sub for Beirut at End Of The Road

Saturday night in Dorset

Giving Courtney Barnett a headline set seems to go against every prophecy she’s ever self-depreciatingly sermonised. But guitar strapped loosely to her front, flanked by a full band of friends (and a bass player mythologically referred to as Bones), it doesn’t take long for her to assert her right to the throne with all the cocksure eminence of a younger Patti Smith. She’s bluntly center-stage, grinning, singing songs about the uneasy knowledge share of the relationship between a singer and their audience, with the wry brilliance we’ve all become accustomed to over the last half-decade.

“Don’t you have anything better to do?” she asks, before a breathy chorus or two of ‘Pedestrian At Best’, with its own oracular “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.” She’s got two pedestals here: one that her words will end most people’s Saturday night, and the Good Samaritan fallback, that she’s here to rescue the festival after Beirut’s Zach Condon came down laryngitis. Earlier in the day, she’d told an audience in conversation at the Piano Stage that she really just wanted to pull a sickie and watch Low.

It’s a quiet climax, suitable to someone whose career has been built by grappling the enlightenment complex of being bored, spearheading the tongue-in-cheek movement from Down Under with Stella and Amyl holding the torch. She flies through odes to Internet trolls making use of alphabet soup, weeding her lawn, and then mowing her lawn. The conversational tone covers most of the evening’s audience interaction, but just as you can be sure to get a good response from songs about doing the gardening in Dorset, you can’t expect its listeners to do much in the way of singing along.

“You’re a very quiet crowd,” she says, despite a few football heckles of “We love you Courtney, we do.” Her only response is that the next song’s called ‘Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence’. She encores, leaving her guitar on stage with one long feedback line being drawn out and enveloping back in on itself. We walk away, suddenly aware of the general lack of the Riviera-tinged ukuleles we all came here for. But in a way that only Courtney Barnett can manage, there’s an art to leaving an audience feeling at once completely fulfilled and a little bit bored, in the weekend’s most artfully understated headline set.

Photography: Rachel Juarez-Carr

Courtney Barnett, Woods Stage, End of the Road festival, August 31 2019