Words by: Donovan
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s tour behind their collaborative record Lotta Sea Lice rolled into Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Friday, and the warm and fuzzy slacker rock vibes that made the record such an enjoyable listen were on even fuller display in the Schnitz. It’s difficult to think of a city more suited for the duo’s mellow and deceptively intelligent slacker rock than Portland, and the whole evening had the feel of a cozy house show played in front of a basement full homies while a joint was passed and laughs were had. However, instead of a basement crammed with twenty people, we were in one of the finest venues in the Pacific Northwest and there were a few thousand of us (and any J smoking had to be done outside).
Barnett’s wife Jen Cloher opened the show, and it’s great to see the underappreciated (at least in the US) Cloher getting the opportunity to play in front of the biggest American audiences of her career. Despite playing by her lonesome to a massive room being slowly filled with talking people, Cloher seemed right at home, and both her jovial banter and heart-on-her-sleeve songs added to the evening’s air of informal merriment.
Beyond their music, the headlining duo’s personalities and looks jibe so well that Kurt and Courtney’s ying and yang rapport is similar to that of a brother and sister. They finished each other’s thoughts and shared a laugh more than twice on stage, and although Vile seems an immensely chilled-out dude in general, I’ve never seen him so clearly laid back. When a fan screamed out “I LOVE YOU COURTNEY!” during an especially quiet moment, Vile didn’t skip a beat and chuckled into the mic, “Hey me too. That’s why I’m here.”
For the tour Barnett and Vile are being backed by a rotating cast of collaborators, and the Portland audience was blessed with the presence of Sleater-Kinney and Quasi’s Janet Weiss—who Vile introduced as “The Pimp of Portland”—on drums. Weiss is a Portland icon, and having her onstage further increased the friends and family vibe—as did seeing her husband Lance Bangs and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus in the audience.
That everyone on stage was enjoying themselves immensely was apparent, and although the fact that everyone is sitting at the Schnitz can sometimes take some of the energy out of room, having a comfy seat jibed well with the warm buzz of music emanating from the stage. The only time the audience stood up was for a particularly smoking version of Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin’” during the encore, one of three of Vile solo numbers, along with “On Tour” and “Life Like This”, performed on the evening. The group also played four of Barnett’s tunes, “Depreston,” “Dead Fox,” “Out of the Woodwork” and the show closing “Avant Gardener,” and the band filled out the set with great versions of “Elvis Presley Blues” by Gillian Welch, Bully’s “Untogether” and Cloher’s “Fear is like a Forest,” which is also on Lotta Sea Lice.
The show, much like the record, may not have been breaking any new ground for either artist—but that wasn’t the point of the collab. The point was exploring a musical partnership that’s extended to friendship—music that sounds great whether you’re crammed into a dank basement with 20 friends, or lounging leisurely in the decadently gorgeous Arlene Schnitzer with 3 thousand strangers. In today’s calamitous American environment, a couple of hours or so of good vibes and better tunes feels lovelier—and more needed—than ever.