Courtney Barnett crept up on a broader audience charmed by the droll, clever wordplay that cast her as indie-rock’s most distinctive breakthrough songwriter. But it’s been two years since the Aussie upstart’s debut album. What would she do next? The answer was to pair with Philly songwriter Kurt Vile — a kindred soul in dealing songs that unfurl at a leisurely pace — on their collaborative new album Lotta Sea Lice and a tour that hit the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday for a sold-out crowd seemingly tilted toward being there for Barnett.
The reality was that neither artist was really bound to steal the show — that’s not their style. They both walked onstage as if cut from the same cloth in flannel shirts, scraggly hair draped around their faces. And their 15-song set built on the laidback swap between their drawling voices and folk-tinged guitars on Lotta Sea Lice, offering eight of its nine tunes plus a few others from each bandleader’s catalog.
Barnett’s voice offered a sweeter edge than the smoky-toned Vile, yet he proved a more proficient guitarist, plucking crisp electric leads across the 90-minute show that raised a question over whether she’ll stick to a trio format the next time she tours on her own.
They began with six Lotta Sea Lice songs, starting in order and hitting a distinctive stretch with the Crazy Horse-like guitar smolder of “Fear is Like a Forest” (written by Barnett’s partner and worthy opener Jen Cloher), the coy interplay of “Continental Breakfast” (underscored by Vile’s acoustic fingerpicking) and the swinging riff accents of “Outta the Woodwork,” a grittier remake of an old Barnett number.
The duo’s revolving all-star band the Sea Lice added empathetic support, with Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa (in place of Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss) provided extra thump to Vile’s “On Tour,” which was also colored by keyboardist Katie Harkin’s staccato chords. And Boston native Rob Lasko, who plays in Vile’s Violators, mixed bass and guitar lines, adding well-placed slide to a cover of another local product, Belly’s “Untogether,” which closing the set as it does the Sea Lice album, with Vile and Barnett musing in harmony about a relationship unraveled. When the bandleaders returned by themselves for the encore and nestled into Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues,” their alchemy was even more starkly evident.
Vile truly hit his groove with the encore-centering “Pretty Pimpin,” while Barnett drew cheers mid-set for her wry house-hunting tale “Depreston” (its country lilt perfect for this project if taken too briskly on Saturday). In “Dead Fox,” as she sang “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you,” Barnett exchanged a glance and a laugh with fans in the front upper box past the PA speakers, her spirit carrying over to Vile, who came over to lean his head on her shoulder. And when the group closed the night with Barnett’s “Avant Gardener” (her stream-of-consciousness account of an asthma attack), ticket-buyers who mainly came to check out the aw-shucks wunderkind got just enough of a solo sample to match one cool intercontinental partnership.