One week into his headlining tour, alt-rocker Barns Courtney lit up the crowd at El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on Tuesday night.
While this is not his first rodeo as a solo artist (he supported Elle King and Ed Sheeran on their tours), his Shoestring Tour marks the first time playing with a full band in an attempt to truly mirror the instrumentation of his recently released EP, The Dull Drums. In the past, his shows were acoustic — just Courtney and a guitar.
“Most of my fans who have seen me live have seen me as an acoustic act, so I just want to go out there and melt people’s faces off,” he told Billboard before the show. “A lot of the time when you play all your songs acoustic, it can make the performance quite one-dimensional. I want real peaks and troughs and give people an experience.”
The set list (below) was a combination of songs from the EP and new, never-before-heard tunes. Courtney combined the old and the new by weaving in a few anecdotes about his long journey to increasing success.
After the crowd stomped along to his U.K. radio hit “Glitter and Gold,” Courtney talked about his first time playing in Los Angeles at The Hotel Café.
“I jumped on a table and it collapsed in front of all the record label executives ever,” he laughed.
His deep George Ezra-esque vocals with the husky Americana rhythm of Mumford & Sons, along with his attention-grabbing stage presence left no boring moments throughout the concert. The high-energy performance — and the accompanying hyped-up crowd — contrasts heavily to his three-year struggle to draw any attention to his music.
Born in the U.K. but raised in the United States, the now 26-year-old Courtney returned to England in high school. He formed a band, Dive Bella Dive, and was signed to Island Records right after graduation. They made an album that was never released, they were dropped from the label in 2013, and Courtney was left couch-surfing around England, selling cigarettes and trying to regain his stride.
“I thought I won at life when I signed my deal straight out of high school and that I was the messiah of life choices. And then I had the rug just pulled out from under me. My girlfriend at the time was like, ‘When do you think you’re going to finish this music thing? It’s not really working out for you, is it?’” he joked.
He ended the show with the song that changed his life, “Fire,” finishing the performance by completely demolishing his guitar in the most rock-star way possible. In 2015, the single was featured in Bradley Cooper’s movie Burnt, he signed to Virgin Records, and his full-length album is set to release sometime this year. “That was it. From nothing to everything all at once,” Courtney recalls. “Fire” reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Adult airplay chart and generated more than 8 million on-demand audio and video streams in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music.
As for what he hopes fans take from his live shows, Courtney says he wants his fans to see the hard work he put into getting this far. “It’s not enough to have good songs, good live show, good image or interesting production. You need to kill it on every single front. All I can do is just put my head down and get to the grinding stone and try my best.”
Beyond his current tour dates, you can also catch Courtney at the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, May 19-21.
El Rey set list:
Never Let You Down
Glitter and Gold
Hard to be Alone
Attractions of Youth