Shamir and Courtney Barnett have a lot more in common than you might think on first glance. Their careers seem to be following pretty much the same trajectory: Both built their buzz off of EPs — Northtown for Shamir, A Sea Of Split Peas for Barnett — and both of them have one breakout single to their names so far — “On The Regular” and “Avant Gardener,” respectively. Barnett’s a little further along on the path, having just come off of the successful rollout of her debut album, but Shamir is only trailing a few months behind, with his first record due in May. Musically, they both prefer the jarringly straightforward method of songwriting — Barnett with her mile-a-minute emotional roller coasters and Shamir with his cocky off-the-cuff ramblings. They are two of the potentially brightest stars in the music world right now, and it was a pleasure to see them go back-to-back last night at NPR’s SXSW showcase.
Let’s start off with Shamir, who took the stage first. I’m not even sure where to begin because I haven’t been this enthralled with a live performance for a while. He stuck to mostly new songs for the set, and each one of them was better than the last. Throw out everything you know about the subdued throbbing of Northtown — he’s gone all-in on the disco bombast of “On The Regular,” but tempers that with the well-full of emotion that made his earlier songs so intimate and personal. The new material displays a Robyn-like irreverence for pop craft, thumping with an urgency and freneticism that’s intoxicating. Shamir himself is an enchanting performer, a bubbly and happy personality who spits out some of the realest shit in the game. He finished off his set with a new track called “Head In The Clouds,” a body-spasming anthem of epic proportions. Shamir made his way into the crowd for this one, eventually disappearing into the masses and presumably slipping off backstage. Even long after he had gone, I kept looking around for him to reappear, hoping that the set would keep on going. The only complaint I can muster is that the whole thing went way too quickly — Shamir was on stage for 20 minutes tops. Not sure if that was his decision or the venue’s but it certainly left me wanting more.
Barnett came on about a half-hour later, and the crowd had grown in size significantly, no doubt because of the waves Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit has been making. Her set was a little bit more paint-by-numbers than Shamir’s, but no less satisfying. She also stuck to playing mostly new material and played most of her new album in full, launching into a string of songs that are soon to be everyone’s favorites once we’re able to spend a little bit more time with them. The wordy nature of her music meant that it wasn’t as visceral as what came before, but the set did make you recognize her inimitable songwriting ability. Barnett’s band sounds like a well-oiled machine, and you could tell Barnett was basking in the glow of her new album finally being out there for people to listen to. She even avoided playing her breakout hit, choosing to end her set with the seven-minute-long slow jam “Kim’s Caravan,” a daring and interesting note to leave things on. It’s clear that Barnett has had more time to adjust to being in the spotlight than Shamir, but both are equally engaging performers. If last night was Barnett’s victory lap, than Shamir was just dipping his toes in the water. Either way, both of them came out of the night on top.