Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s collaboration at Massey Hall made so much sense

They didn't have much rapport in their banter, but the two rambling, laid-back songwriters communicated seamlessly through music


COURTNEY BARNETT AND KURT VILE at Massey Hall, Tuesday, October 31. Rating: NNNN


So much about a Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile collaboration makes sense: musically, aesthetically, temperamentally.

At their Massey Hall debut, they looked like family members, long brown, wavy hair framing their faces or obscuring them whenever they looked down at their guitars. They personified casual, in jeans and almost-matching red flannels, their affect low and their vibes rambling and laid-back throughout the 90-minute set.

Philly indie star Vile inserted sarcasm and dedications (including one to the Sadies) between songs from their debut collaborative album, Lotta Sea Lice, and between each musician’s solo hits. And though he and Australian singer/songwriter Barnett seemed plenty comfortable in each other’s vicinity, they didn’t establish much rapport in their banter. Barnett would sometimes offer up the next song title and glance at Vile, who didn’t pick up the thread.

They communicated much more seamlessly through their music.

It was almost astonishing to hear their rendition of Life Like This, from Vile’s sixth album B’lieve I’m Goin Down, done as the most perfect duet. He and Barnett traded off verses almost line for line, an approach that worked musically and conceptually. It’s hard to think of two artists with more complementary singing styles: equally rambling lyrics, deadpan deliveries and mid-to-low registers (though Barnett took the higher harmonies with ease).

Vile’s additions to Barnett’s solo songs were also impactful, especially on Depreston, which got one of the biggest crowd responses and which the duo – emboldened by an excellent three-piece band that featured Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa front and centre – played with strength while also maintaining their unique calm. Throughout the night he switched frequently between electric and acoustic guitars, and only truly let loose once, during Pretty Pimpin in the encore, laying out a couple of monster solos.

Of their collaborative songs, the sweet ode to friendship Continental Breakfast was a standout thanks in part to buoyant vocal harmonies, while Fear Is Like A Forest by Barnett’s wife and tour opener Jen Cloher helped establish a hypnotic groove early into the set. The energy dipped too low halfway through the night, but regained momentum with the aforementioned Life Like This and Depreston, and things came to an excellently intimate close with Belly cover Untogether, also from Lotta Sea Lice. (That’s 90s alt-rockers Belly, not the Ottawa rapper.)

A standing ovation brought the pair’s return, and a stirring cover of Gillian Welch’s Elvis Presley Blues, led by Barnett’s powerhouse vocals with Vile’s background contributions deeply felt. They ended strong with the blistering, bluesy Pretty Pimpin and, finally, Barnett’s own special hit Avant Gardener.

And to be fair, sometimes the banter did land. The night’s funniest moment came after Barnett remarked on the Halloween costumes in the crowd, thanking the full house for the effort and then mumbling, “You gotta think positive.” To which Vile instantly replied, “No.”

carlag@nowtoronto.com | @carlagillis

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