Concert review: Courtney Barnett and more at the Nelsonville Music Festival

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Courtney Barnett's mind races even in those moments she remains stationary.

During a headlining turn at the Nelsonville Music Festival on Thursday, the Australian rocker, backed by a drummer and bass guitarist, repeatedly turned out "Seinfeld"-esque songs about nothing, stopping to watch the grass grow ("I stare at the lawn," she drawled on "Small Poppies," which sported rougher edges here than on record), weeding the garden ("Avant Gardener") and sleeplessly staring at the ceiling in a lonely New York hotel room ("An Illustration of Loneliness").

But time and again these seemingly serene scenes served as a backdrop for Barnett's restless thoughts.

Everything served as a distraction on "An Illustration": What's that stain on the ceiling? Maybe I should eat something. I wonder what everyone's doing at home. The leisurely drive depicted on "Dead Fox," in turn, allowed the singer and guitarist to ponder everything from the value of organic vegetables (debatable) to the likelihood of a poorly timed sneeze leading her to crash the car into oncoming traffic (higher than one might think).

At times, these reflections arrived in a mad rush. Such was the case on "Pedestrian at Best," an urgent rocker that called to mind prime-era Nirvana and found the singer's thoughts unspooling as rapidly as chains from a ship's deck upon anchor drop. "I love you, I hate you, I'm on the fence, it all depends," she sang, delivering her words like one long run-on sentence. "Whether I'm up or down, I'm on the mend, transcending all reality."

The three-piece consistently whipped up a sonic whirlwind, piling on feedback ("Small Poppies" closed out with Barnett on her knees conjuring creaky storm winds from her instrument) and toying with rough-edged riffs as fast and loose as pencil sketches. On "Elevator Operator," the musicians paired Barnett's rich character descriptions - "Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin/ Hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton" could've been lifted from a novel - with a primal stomp, rumbling downhill like an avalanche littered with thundering drums, rubbery bass and scratchy, staccato guitar.

Barnett's appearance highlighted the opening day of the regional music festival, which continues through Sunday, closing out with a performance from Randy Newman, a sharp, satirical songwriter best known to the younger generation for crooning the theme to the animated "Toy Story" film. (Expect more cutting, politically charged material here, and perhaps some shots directed at an orange-tinted political candidate ideally suited to Newman's acidic tongue.)

Earlier on the main stage, a pair of Columbus bands engaged in a bit of a sonic duel, with evolving folk-rock collective Saintseneca occasionally getting Skrillexed by garage-pop quartet Sega Genocide, which performed on the nearby side stage. "Sega Genocide is playing over there," said guitarist/backing vocalist Steve Ciolek. "Let's just have a moment." Both groups, leading a Columbus-heavy Thursday contingent that also included Angela Perley & the Howlin' Moons and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, impressed, Saintseneca with ornately detailed tunes that utilized man-made tools to tackle big, existential questions and Sega Genocide with scrappy, high-energy songs that grappled with more human failings.

Elsewhere, Water Witches, an Athens band comprised of four bearded long-haired dudes more easily pegged as warlocks, breezed through vaguely psychedelic tunes that served as brief distraction, while Weedghost set up shop in the no-fi cabin - a cozy, old-time schoolhouse complete with a chalkboard displaying the alphabet written out in cursive - for a droning set that doubled as a haunted, arty sound instillation.

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats followed on the main stage, churning out by-the-numbers rock 'n' soul high on energy but low on originality that generally left me feeling cold. Far better was Chicago garage-rock duo White Mystery, which balanced fun (the band name is taken from a flavor of Airheads candy, after all) and ferocity, the brother-sister pair trading hits like would-be pugilists. At one point, singer and guitarist Alex White functioned as a de facto one-woman band, taking a seat at Francis' kit and pounding out a beat on the kick drum while continuing to play guitar. Also, the duo receives major bonus points for having easily the best song introduction of the day: "We're White Mystery. Thank you. This song's called 'Buttheads from Mars.'"