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Review: Courtney Barnett means every word in an electrifying show at the Greek Theatre

Review: Courtney Barnett means every word in an electrifying show at the Greek Theatre
Australian rocker Courtney Barnett was both sage wordsmith and guitar hero at the Greek Theatre on Friday. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A mundane observation that would fit neatly into one of Courtney Barnett’s songs: There are close to 350 words in “Avant Gardener,” the sleeper hit that established Barnett as a peerless lyricist in modern rock and catapulted her well beyond her native Australia.

At the Greek Theatre on Friday night, the young woman in row P, seat 9 knew every one of those hundreds of words. Even the tongue-twisters — “anaphylactic and super hypocondriactic” — spewed forth as if she were relaying a fond old memory.

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“I mean, if I have an idol, it’s Courtney,” she said to the reporter in the next seat over.

A row behind her stood a dude in his 50s, feet planted apart in Freddie Mercury mode and arms windmilling air-guitar riffs.

Together they were a microcosm of the vast appeal of Courtney Barnett: Her songs, while deeply personal and often oddball, tell our own stories. No matter how convoluted the lyrics might look on paper, you find yourself singing (and playing) them with conversational ease.

Barnett seemed to surface wholly formed in 2013 with a collection of her first two EPs. Her dense narratives, about everyday ephemera and the throwaway details that comprise the bigger picture, instantly reminded critics and listeners of pop’s other celebrated storytellers, from Joni Mitchell to Jonathan Richman.

Even the Recording Academy took note, nominating Barnett for best new artist at 2016’s Grammy Awards. (Sorry for the sad reminder that Meghan “All About That Bass” Trainor won that year.)

Since that auspicious arrival, though, Barnett’s albums have grown even more nuanced, her gonzo tales only slightly more streamlined and primed for radio. Years of rigorous touring have emboldened Barnett with road-tested swagger. Where she once put the focus squarely on her lyrics, these days she’s nearly a loose cannon — brandishing her electric guitar as if it were chopping wood and coaxing snarling solos from it.

Barnett, 30, and her crack three-piece band came to the Greek behind one of the year’s most arresting rock records, “Tell Me How You Really Feel.” She opened the show the way the album begins, with the minor-chord blues of “Hopefulessness.” As the jumbo screens cast her backlit in blood-red hues, Barnett offered advice that reflected the dichotomy lurking right there in the song title: “Take your broken heart / Turn it into art / Can’t take it with you,” she sang.

On “Need a Little Time,” a surefire hit had it been released during the rise of 1990s alternative rock, Barnett zoomed in on the fine print of a relationship on life support: “I need a little time out / From me, me, me, me / And you, ooh, you, ooh.”

“Elevator Operator” and “Pedestrian at Best,” a pair of jagged little pills from her studio debut, 2015’s “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit,” unleashed her feral prowess on guitar. On “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” her shredded vocals were just as coarse as her clanging guitar licks.

Yet Barnett was also devastating when shifting inward on “Depreston,” a fan favorite and meditation on domestic bliss and fear of aging; its chorus about house-hunting sparked a soft singalong that floated through the evening chill: “If you’ve got a / Spare half a million / You could knock it down / And start rebuilding.”

Courtney Bartnett in the opening moments of her Greek Theatre performance.
Courtney Bartnett in the opening moments of her Greek Theatre performance. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Barnett kicked off her encore with a poignant cover of “Everything Is Free,” Gillian Welch’s prescient song about how our culture doesn’t exactly value artists trying to make a living. Alone with just her guitar, Barnett laid out each refrain with plainspoken beauty.

She was in good company with such biographical songs, too. Barnett invited Waxahatchee, Katie Crutchfield’s heart-on-sleeve rock outfit that opened the show, to join her for a tender duet of Elyse Weinberg’s “Houses.”

And in a nod to a likely early influence, Stephen Malkmus, the erstwhile Pavement frontman who has been painting similarly miniature portraits of quotidian life since the early 1990s, also warmed up the stage with his band, the Jicks.

Malkmus brought out Kim Gordon for a playful, he-said-she-said rendition of “Refute,” which also features the Sonic Youth hero on the version from the band’s new album, “Sparkle Hard.” (Gordon’s T-shirt sent an all-caps message for our politically charged times: “BETO FOR TEXAS,” a plug for Beto O’Rourke, the Senate hopeful challenging Ted Cruz.)

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