As the sun sets on a Melbourne evening in Spring, the light trickles through the tinted roof into the beer garden in Howler Melbourne. The lorikeets from outside chirp loudly, mirroring an indistinct chatter from an excited crowd waiting for an acoustic rendition of local powerhouse Courtney Barnett. MTV Unplugged Melbourne’s latest guest is grunge goddess and Milk Records owner; invited to swap her reverb and head banging for a semi-acoustic guitar and a stool, resulting in one of the captivating and compelling performances of the year.
“It’s so hard to sit down when I… don’t…” mutters Barnett before launching into a stripped back version of Avant Gardener. A distorted, gliss heavy meandering of a song has all it’s intricacies ripped off, and replaced with a haunting cello. Capturing that neurotic tension through a gorgeous, yet eerie layer of cello is a testament to the level of Barnett’s musicianship. She creates a mood through both lyrics and arrangement, where I swear if you leave her with only recorder she would still be able to replicate the musical nuances of her stories.
If the night wasn’t special enough, the revolving door of guests was met with a rapture of applause, with each three duets delivering a cover of Australian royalty. Paul Kelly was first, and certainly a highlight. The Barnett/Kelly duo is not a new combination, and shouldn’t be something we hide away. The two blend together seamlessly, and their cover of Archie Roache’s Charcoal Lane was no exception to this. If this wasn’t the peak of Australian music, then I don’t know what is.
Marlon Williams’ husky baritone became an unlikely, but welcomed accompanying to Barnett as they covered Seeker Lover Keeper’s Not Only I. The troisieme and final duet was Milk Records artist Evelyn Ida Morris mounted the keys, premiering their cover of Barnett’s own Nameless Faceless. A duet that will never leave me. It will be released on Milk Record’s 2019 compilation album, so look out for that, and get ready to lose yourself in a minor key and haunting vocals of an already.
“I wrote this song last night,” says Barnett before completely nailing a five minute, finger picking heavy track. A song about belonging, not belonging, finding love, not finding love, and the usual self-doubt that Courtney constantly articulates with simplistic poignancy. This song is yet to be named, but boasting a catchy hook and neurotically addictive lyrics, this is definitely one to look out for.
As we come close to a close, the band tackles a Leonard Cohen cover that makes me want to talk about Bones Sloan. Bassist and backup vocalist, Sloan delivered a soaring falsetto that really shone through this Cohen rendition. We hear his vocals shine every now and again (hiding lower in the mix in Avant Gardener), but strip it all back and Bones Sloan’s lungs get the recognition they deserve.
With her roots based in Melbourne’s inner-north, from writing songs in her backyard in Northcote, to conquering the world with multiple records, Courtney Barnett’s come full circle as we sat in the forecourt of one of Melbourne’s most loved gig spaces. She’s back to the beginning, jamming with her friends in, covering songs, playing new tracks she penned the night before and just enjoying playing music. MTV Unplugged Melbourne brings artists back to these roots, strips backs the glitz and glamour of live music and simply lets them do what they do best.
This recording of MTV Unplugged Melbourne will air at 7.30pm on Sunday 17 November, and will no doubt have a digital release after the fact, so tune in!