I’ve never seen people standing in the front row leave in the middle of a concert, but that’s exactly what happened during Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s “Lotta Sea Lice” stop in Oakland. The crowd (including me) wore the same uniform of black jeans, plaid shirts and trucker jackets as they languidly moved from side to side, sipped beers and mouthed Barnett and Vile’s confessional stream-of consciousness lyrics. It was a lazy crowd, one that failed to really connect with the artists.
Opener (and Barnett’s longtime girlfriend) Jen Cloher had a much better time keeping the crowd’s attention. It’s always a rarity for the opener to outshine the headliner, but folk rocker Cloher did just that. She dominated The Fox’s elaborate gilded stage, armed with just her acoustic guitar, powerful, slightly raspy voice and charming anecdotes about growing up as a tomboy in Australia. She introduced the touching “Strong Woman” with a funny story about sneaking out and pretending to be a boy named John to play “Galaga” in a corner store when she was ten. Cloher had the crowd screaming for more by the end of the song, which closed her set.
As Barnett and Vile stood on the Fox’s red velvet stage flanked by Indian-inspired statues, they felt out of place, dressed casually with hair covering most of their faces. Barnett appeared to be uncomfortable as she looked around the venue giving shy smiles to The Sea Lice, their band. Vile gave similar smiles to the crowd, hiding behind his seemingly endless long hair. They barely moved, preferring to stand as close to their microphones as possible.
Janet Weiss (Sleater Kinney’s drummer) seemed to have full control of the stage as she energetically drummed behind Barnett and Vile’s stiff guitar playing. People started chants of “Janet fucking Weiss,” and Vile even referred to her as “the OG pimp,” when he introduced “Pretty Pimpin” during the encore.
It’s not that Barnett and Vile were bad — they sounded great, even better than they do in the album, in fact — they just lack charisma as live performers. Barnett’s voice rings clear, paradoxically monotone yet melodic, peppered with a heavy Australian accent. Vile’s has a slight country rock twang and sounds like something out of the ‘70s. Their voices highlight the self-deprecation and humor in songs like “On Script,” an ode to repetitive patterns.
There were shining moments, of course. I just wish there was more of them. Barnett and Vile seemed to get more comfortable as the show went on and when they played their older material. The crowd started dancing and singing at the top of their lungs for the first time as Barnett sang “Depreston” with snarky aplomb and a hint of sadness. It was a glimpse of what this show could have been.
Featured Photo: Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile perform at The Fox. Claudia Sanchez/FOGHORN.