Last year was supposed to be a victory lap for Bartees Cox, the omnivorous indie rocker who records under the moniker Bartees Strange.
After slogging through nearly a decade in the music industry with varying levels of success and after shopping his debut album for nearly two years to dozens of labels without any takers, Cox finally released “Live Forever,” a daringly inventive album that has been embraced with wide acclaim.
Then the pandemic happened, and with it, any sense that Cox could bask in his success with a clean conscience.
“It was almost like survivor’s guilt for me,” said Cox, who will play at Felton Music Hall Saturday for a headlining set before opening for Courtney Barnett at the Fox Theater in Oakland Sunday. “I was so grateful, but it was kind of a bummer. You spend so much time trying to make something work and then when it finally works, things are bad for everyone else.”
While the embers of the pandemic are still glowing (welcome to the world omicron!), the fires have abated a little bit, and with that easing, Cox has slowly started to embrace his newfound and much deserved fame. A ubiquitous presence in this year’s summer festival circuit, he drew rave reviews for his fevered performances, which included a memorable appearance at Outside Lands in San Francisco.
“A lot of people might just be getting to know me, but I’m 32 years old, so when I walk on the stage and see all those people, I feel so prepared,” said Cox, who played in the hardcore band Stay Inside before finding success with Bartees Strange. “Like, I know how to work a crowd. I’m going to try everything I’ve seen on TV. I’m going to put on a show. I wasn’t nervous at all. It was just so much fun.”
Cox’s assured presence made those festival gigs compelling, but his eclectic and far-ranging musical offerings elevated them into must-see events. “Live Forever,” his debut album under Bartees Strange, showcases a stunning variety of ideas, ranging from jazz, hip-hop, trap, indie rock and folk. His best-known song from the album, “Boomer,” showcases all those elements within a single track, reflecting the tastes of someone who is equally inspired by rapper Kid Cudi as he is by brooding indie artists the National.
The journey on “Live Forever” is dizzying, with the listener traveling from the woozy, auto-tune inflected R&B number “Free Kelly Rowland” to the austere and wintry “Fallen For You,” which sounds like a long-lost Bon Iver outtake. That diverse mixture clearly resonated. “Live Forever” landed on more than a dozen Best Of 2020 lists, including placement in publications such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Uproxx and Paste Magazine.
Cox attributes his expansive musical oeuvre to his unique upbringing. The son of a military officer and an opera singer, Cox was born in England and moved throughout his young childhood before settling in Mustang, Oklahoma, a quiet town far removed from music’s main gatekeepers.
“In Oklahoma, nobody really tours, there isn’t any kind of scene, so you don’t really understand what preconceptions come with music,” said Cox, who also recorded an EP of National cover songs last year, prior to the release of “Live Forever.” “Like, I didn’t know what a real punk was. I didn’t know what they were supposed to like or not like. So, I just took it all in. I liked everything. I considered myself all those things.”
After impatiently sitting out last year, Cox is making up for lost time now, touring relentlessly in support of “Live Forever.” He has opened for Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and now Barnett, and he’s set to embark on a lengthy jaunt doing the same for indie rockers Car Seat Headrest. Despite the busy schedule, Cox said he could be putting out new music in the near future.
“Oh my God, there is so much more music,” said Cox. “I don’t know when it’s gonna come out, but it will be soon. And it will be all good, it’ll be fun. We will get it going again.”
With huge tours planned and a ton of new tunes set to be released, Cox is happily not wasting another minute.
IF YOU GO
Where: Felton Music Hall, 6275 Highway 9, Felton
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11
Contact: (831) 704-7113, www.feltonmusichall.com
Bartees Strange with Courtney Barnett
Where: Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
When: 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12
Contact: (510) 302-2250, thefoxoakland.com