PHOTOGRAPHY: Zach Gross
It was 2009 when Kurt Vile played Northside Festival in not one, but two shows—marking the end of his tenure in The War on Drugs and the start of his solo career. Several years later, in 2014, Courtney Barnett played Northside, too. Now, in 2017, the two have joined forces and left Brooklyn. I followed suit.
On October 13, Vile and Barnett released the album Lotta Sea Lice, a generally lauded collection of mellow, twangy narratives, playing off of Vile’s aloof country-rocker persona and Barnett’s knack for turning the mundane into a point of interest through her lyrics. On November 1, I took the pilgrimage, by way of the C train, from High Street to 86th Street to watch the duo at Beacon Theatre. I had yet to see either of the two live, and wondered how their styles would intersect on stage. Barnett was known for an electrifying stage presence while Vile veered into the ironically-reserved. Additionally, Barnett and Vile didn’t strike me as a duo I’d go to see at a formal, sit-down show—but there I was.
The pair walked on stage to begin their set, acknowledging the audience with only a nod before beginning the first song of the night and on their album, “Over Everything.” Both Barnett and Vile donned matching flannel shirts and skinny pants, appearing as faceless musicians—shaggy mops of hair covered their faces as they strummed at their guitars. It would almost be difficult to tell the two apart, except for the fact that Vile stood still while Barnett’s feet moved around the stage so passionately that it almost looked as if she were about to take flight. Up next was “Let it Go,” a dialogue that lyrically seems more like a backstage pep talk between two friends than a finished product meant to be broadcasted.
As the show went on, Vile and Barnett went back and forth, each of their verses like waves, crashing one into the other. The two spoke very little between numbers, allowing the storytelling to take place through their lyrics—in fact, neither spoke a word to the audience until after the second song, when Vile uttered a brief “How you guys feelin’ tonight?’” before swiftly beginning “Fear is Like a Forest.”
The two frequently looked to one another, and maybe it was just me, but it looked like they were exchanging smirks— as if they were both in on an inside joke. Watching the two duet was like eavesdropping in on a conversation I wanted to be a part of.
Because Lotta Sea Lice is so subdued, the most energizing performances of the night came from Barnett and Vile’s multiple solo performances. Barnett’s “Depreston” needed no introduction—the crowd joined in almost immediately as Barnett sang in painstaking detail about a visit to a suburban estate. Vile joined in for the hook, and all at once, the entire venue sang together: “If you’ve got a spare half a million / You could knock it down and start rebuilding.” It wasn’t until the encore that Vile had his shining solo moment, playing “Pretty Pimpin’” to an audience, that at this point, was entirely on its feet.
As the show neared a close, I felt as though I had witnessed something special that night. In a venue as grand as the Beacon, Vile and Barnett have the ability to make you tune out your surroundings. Lotta Sea Lice isn’t a revolutionary album, but it is smart. Watching the two perform it together was captivating, in the same way watching the cool kids from a different table in the cafeteria would be.
When the show was over, the room was filled with applause while the two exited the stage the same way they had entered—without a word.