Singer-songwriters Courtney Barnett of Australia and Kurt Vile of Philadelphia performed at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, November 4 as part of a tour for their collaborative album Lotta Sea Lice, released just a few weeks prior. Although both musicians have enjoyed considerable success—Barnett is a rapidly rising star of the indie scene, while Vile was a member of The War on Drugs before leaving in 2008 to pursue a solo career—this album marked their first release as a duo. It was a partnership that made sense to fans, as the two artists share many musical elements, including twangy rock-folk guitars and candid, dorky lyrics.
The show opened with a set from Jen Cloher, fellow Australia native and longtime girlfriend of Barnett. Cloher performed alone with an acoustic guitar, singing a handful of mellow, melancholy tunes reminiscent of, if slightly darker-sounding than, those of Barnett (who cites Cloher as a major musical influence). Throughout her set, she kept the audience entertained with anecdotes of her life with Barnett and their cat, Bubbles, as well as some stories from her childhood. Her pleasant and charming performance more than set the stage for the headliners.
Barnett and Vile, donning matching flannel shirts and black skinny jeans, were joined on stage by backing band The Sea Lice, which consisted of bassist Rob Laakso (a Boston native, as Vile pointed out multiple times), Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, and English keyboardist Katie Harkin. They began their set with “Over Everything,” the first single from their album, a cheery and relaxed duet which saw improvised guitar solos from both artists in the live performance. They played nearly every song on their album, including Cloher cover “Fear Is Like a Forest,” corny ditty “Blue Cheese,” and the more powerful, driving “Outta the Woodwork.” The only Lotta Sea Lice song omitted from the performance was “Peepin’ Tom,” a reworked track from Vile’s 2011 album Smoke Ring For My Halo, though the set had no shortage of cuts from each artist’s solo material. They played Barnett songs “Depreston” and “Dead Fox,” from her 2015 album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, as well as “Avant Gardner” from 2014 double EP A Sea of Split Peas. Vile sang only on the first of these, offering just guitar parts for the other two; likewise, Barnett stayed quiet for “Pretty Pimpin” (from 2015 Vile album b’lieve i’m goin down), though she contributed vocals to the same album’s “Life Like This” as well as Smoke Ring For My Halo’s “On Tour.” The encore included a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues,” which Barnett and Vile performed without the Sea Lice.
Although the musicians were solid and in sync on stage, their performance suffered from a noticeable lack of energy. In sharp contrast to Cloher, Barnett and Vile made little effort to interact with the audience, save for the standard repetitions of “Thanks for coming out’” and “We’re so happy to be here.” Musically, there was almost no difference between the live show and the recorded songs, and neither musician had a particularly captivating stage presence. In addition, there were many missed opportunities for vocal harmonization: though both incredibly talented singers, the two chose to sing in unison for most of their songs, including the tracks from each solo artist on which the other opted to perform vocals. The set would have seen drastic improvement had there been some more interesting harmonies. Nevertheless, Barnett and Vile put on a generally satisfactory show, and further collaboration between the two artists is greatly anticipated.