It’s just before 7 p.m. on a Friday night. I’m stage left, mezzanine level, chatting with a lady who looks old enough to be my mom. She’d driven down from Kansas City for the opening weekend of The Momentary, Bentonville’s splashy new contemporary arts space. She works night shifts in K.C., she tells me, and loves making a weekend out of an art escape. She mentions Chihuly. She’s at the show, along with a packed house, for a musician she knows nothing about. The dozen or so chairs available at the concert are taken, so she’s sitting on the floor.
We’re waiting for Aussie indie rocker extraordinaire Courtney Barnett to take the stage inside the polished RØDE House, named after the microphone company that served as a founding funder. It’s situated inside the former milk intake room of what used to be a Kraft Cheese Plant that operated as recently as 2013. The rectangle space has a high ceiling, and boasts a completely adjustable floor made up of panels on lifts so the hall can seat at least 350 people or be converted to standing room only, as it is tonight. Fans are right up against the stage that’s only a few feet higher than floor level. The room is full, but pretty tightly wound at this point. It’s a brand new venue with no established regulars, and no sense of a pre-show etiquette. The polished floors don’t have so much as a scuff yet, and everything still has that “new car” feeling. After all, it’s opening night for Momentary members — the only show prior was a private party the night before, which Barnett also played.
Barnett’s playing a solo set, no backing band, unless you count three amps and a small board of a handful of effects pedals. She plays a Telecaster all night. She walks on nonchalantly in a white t-shirt and high rise black jeans and says, “Look at you. You’re right there. I love it.”
She tells us she’s going to sing a song about gardening. “It’s a true story,” she says, and launches in with “I sleep in late, another day oh what a wonder oh what a waste” with her signature deadpan off-the-cuff confessional style. It’s the first song I remember hearing from her 2013 release “The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas.” At one point she’s inviting us to sing along, to the cascade of “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ahs.”
Without any banter she launches directly into a second song, “Need A Little Time” from her 2018’s “Tell Me How You Really Feel.” The album version depends on drums and bass to build momentum, and in this stripped down version, she compensates with widely varying dynamics and tempo, a tactic she uses throughout the show.
There’s a resonant guitar solo and a slow build as she sings “me-e-ee-eee-mee.” The crowd is beginning to mellow — there’s a young woman who’s really feeling it and waving her hands in the air, as most everyone else still stands pretty stiffly, perhaps a slight head bob or two. After three songs slammed up against each other with no pause or banter she apologizes for the stage lights that are causing reflections off her Telecaster, temporarily blinding folks, before saying, “I’m going to sing more songs.”
There’s not much for extravagant lighting or set other than tasteful patterns being projected across the room and a bit of smoke from a machine. Other than a heartfelt and humbly-stated, “thanks,” Barnett still isn’t saying much. As she ends songs, she lets long sustained chords play out until pianissimo. Her stage presence is like her lyric — minimal, with slow pacing. Zero flashiness.
After “Walking on Eggshells,” she asks “where is everyone from?” I hear an indistinguishable mess and one firm “Bella Vista.” “I’m getting lots of places,” she says. “That’s good. I feel like we know each other a little better now.” During “Elevator Operator,” she stumbles on the verse and pauses before remembering and the crowd cheers her on.
There’s a small but steady trickle out the door and the room isn’t at capacity, but those inside are pretty rapt. “The next song was written by Gillian Welch,” she says, before quietly strumming to, “Everything Is Free.”
That’s when my eyes well up with tears. We’re all entranced. The dynamic shifts are incredible, as are her pregnant pauses that make it feel as if she’s going to just abruptly stop, before launching in for a slow build of guitar solo filled with lilt-y off-kilter twangy embellishments.
At this point she’s clearly warmed up, and the crowd has, too. “Any questions now,” she asks as she tunes. “I’ve never been here before.” Fans are yelling requests. There’s one about a house in the suburbs that she says she’s already planned on playing later in the night. Then a song request I couldn’t decipher, but Barnett likes it and says it’s a great Grateful Dead song, but that she doesn’t know the chords or the lyrics.
She plays another cover, the Lemonheads’ “Being Around.” “If I was in the fridge, would you open the door?” She plays from her duet album with Kurt Vile. “It’s a duet, so you will have to use your imagination,” she states before explaining that she’s just like him. “He is a bit taller. Otherwise we’re basically the same.” She launches into “Let It Go.”
At this point she’s nearly filled the hour she’s supposed to play. “People can sit down. I like that.” Audience members are actually sitting on the stage, and on the steps of the mezzanine that lead down to the stage. Barnett tells us she likes the earlier show time, too.
She plays the song about the house in the suburbs. Someone shouts “In Bella Vista!,” a joke Barnett clearly wouldn’t get, this being her first time in Arkansas. She explains it’s really a depressing song about getting old and dying.
In “Depreston,” her use of masterful command of dynamic range is in full force. Another song ends with a lingering chord that dwindles slowly into abyss before she cheerfully says “I like you. I like you a lot. You seem like great people. I’m going to play one more song.” She’s requesting sing-along for “If You Can’t See Me, I Can’t See You.”
She stumbles on a verse, but doesn’t give up. She likes someone’s hat as she continues to fumble on what the next verse is. “So this is a guitar solo.” There’s a sustained “na-na-na-na-na“ to close it out. “So that’s what happens when I don’t practice,” she says, and then launches into “Untitled (On Repeat).”
“Thank you,” she says simply, and walks off stage. There’s chants of “Courtney. Courtney. Courtney.” She comes back and says, “So I had to make a phone call,” before performing “Not Only I” from her 2019 “MTV Unplugged Melbourne” project.
“This has been really nice. You are just great people. If you’re ever in Melbourne you can stay with me,” she says. “Although I don’t have a couch. If I did, you could all stay on it.“
“I feel very honored to be here. It’s a very beautiful space. My name’s Courtney.” She launches into “History Eraser,” adding that “it has a chorus, you can sing along. I’m really cashing in on your vocals.”
There’s a woman in tie-dye really feeling it, waving her arms in the air. When Barnett finishes the final strum, she waves graciously and exits again. House lights go up pretty quickly. The one exit is bottlenecked. Staff encourages fans to make their way out, even though everyone now feels the afterglow of an intimate night.
There’s another show coming up at 9:30 p.m., with party electronica from Icelandic band FM Belfast, but I opt to start the 19 mile trek along I-49 home to Fayetteville. I turn out into the night, passing 8th Street Market and drive down a bumpy two-lane road, one that suddenly has endless fenced industrial-looking construction on either side for the beginnings of the new Walmart home office.