It doesn’t always happen, but occasionally a bill will feature artists who perfectly complement one another, even if they were raised on opposite sides of the globe. Such was the case with Bully and Courtney Barnett last night at First Avenue, the first of two sold-out shows the rising talents have to offer the Twin Cities.
This is the third time I’ve seen Bully come to town in less than a year, and each occasion marked a sizable growth for the Tennessee band. I first saw Alicia Bognanno’s particular ferocious, grunge-influenced punk when Bully opened for Best Coast last June, and since then the band have released their debut album, Feels Like, and have toured behind it relentlessly.
Feels Like is an angsty, empowering record that lays all of Bognanno’s vulnerabilities bare, a fitting match to her raw, visceral take on ’90s noise. Take, for example, the single “Trying.” It opens with the mental anguish of just getting out of bed in the morning: “I can’t get up, invisible handcuffs locked on me.” The thrilling tension makes Feels Like a breath of fresh air in a stale music landscape. Even the band’s name suggests a reclaiming of strength when the odds are stacked against you.
As they opened, Bully tore through tracks off Feels Like in an efficient, rapid-fire manner that never slowed. The mesmerizing howl that drones throughout “Trash,” the defiant scream that ends “Milkman,” and the anecdote about Bognanno (unintentionally) breaking her sister’s arm on “Six” all came and went in a lively flash, a good omen for what was to come. Even though they opened, they still managed to attract a mixed crowd of old and young, suggesting the cross-generational appeal of both acts on the bill.
Courtney Barnett has had quite the year herself, having been nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy after the release of her debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. Yet while the freewheeling title evokes the lackadaisical Australian’s stream-of-consciousness approach to songwriting, Barnett never meanders thoughtlessly in song.
Barnett’s blend of psych-influenced folk-rock deadpans how the mind unravels — not unlike Bully — and both sound like they’re constantly teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Mixing highlights off Sometimes with cuts from her equally anxious collection The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, Barnett performed in front of projected psychedelic visuals: giant cartoon eyes, striped and spotted patterns, tiny ants crawling on traces of honey.
Her songwriting explores the malaise of everyday life, yet finds vibrancy in even the dullest moments of existence. “I’m sorry for all of my insecurities but it’s just part of me,” Barnett sings on “Debbie Downer” — but her neuroses are her biggest strength.
The raucous energy of the record translated so well live with such little assistance, perhaps best exemplified by “Pedestrian at Best.” With Bones Sloane on bass (who had a devoted pair of fans standing beside me, praising him throughout the set) and Dave Mudie on drums, the only missing element of the live band were the added aural furnishings that made the recordings feel whole, particularly the extra bounce of the organ on “Debbie Downer” or “Elevator Operator.”
Yet when Barnett is given free reign to let her mind loose, she rocks out. Other highlights from her set range from the feedback, jam heavy outro of “Small Poppies” to head-bopping favorite “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party.”
It was inevitable that Prince’s specter would cast over First Avenue following his untimely passing. “I’m sure everyone’s had a shit week,” Barnett noted to the crowd before diving into “Depreston.” But what makes her music so relatable is her precise examination of life’s passing moments, a reminder to watch and live them before it’s too late.
Peter Diamond is a senior at the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities and a sound and vision editor of The Wake Student Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @repetediamond.