A dreamy Brooklyn three-piece whose latest record has helped set them into the limelight, Big Thief’s sound is comprised of some ethereal folk-like vocals, amidst a tide of chilled out ambience which this sell out show simply can’t get enough of.
Opening tonight is Katie Von Schleicher, her sound is a melancholy solo aura backed by some highly distorted guitar and great vocal strength. The entire set feels somewhat intentionally unrefined and the roughened style of her music does place an emphasis on her passionate vocals and character. Katie’s engaging personality gave the evening the jump spark that it needed to get going and was incredibly suited for what was to follow.
Big Thief enter and kick off their set with their unquestionably divine folk-like tones. ‘Paul’ makes a solid early appearance and immediately gets the crowd on board. Frontwoman Adrianne Lenker takes the spotlight immediately and demonstrates the beauty of her vocal variance through some brilliant transitions between husked whispered tones and the angelic highs she has made a signature of the band’s sound.
As the set continues, the chilled vibe which has allowed this band to tour the world shows its face. The set is almost entirely improvised, with the transitions between each song beginning with a subtle nod to the other members. This was both a great asset to the set in that it is brilliant to see that DIY music can still be found even in sell out shows but, simultaneously, did lead to some prolonged and uncomfortable silences whilst Adrianne proceeds to tune her guitars.
The group’s latest album Capacity makes up the majority of the stage time and is met enthusiastically from the crowd, however, the same passion from the band isn’t majorly reciprocated. Bar from Adrianne’s passion during her sporadic solo work, where she proceeds to throw her self around the stage, the remainder of the band are static for almost the entire set, at times looking as though they don’t really want to be here. This wouldn’t be an issue, but Adrianne’s awkwardness does at times become overwhelming as muttering spreads through the crowd between each song.
I can’t complain too much, as the sound throughout the entire evening is utterly exemplary. The group have managed to beautifully translate their record into the live environment and hearing these tracks in person has given an entirely new dynamic to the songs. You can truly hear the emotion behind Adrianne’s voice in the narrative of ‘Shark Smile’ and the delicate guitar work behind tracks such as ‘Pretty Things’ are performed with a sublime level of fragility and hollowness.
An encore of the unreleased ‘Terminal Paradise’ ends the evening on a sobering but beautiful note. Despite the song’s themes of death and suffering, there is a surprising level of optimism from the band and crowd and allows for one final deafening cheer from the room. Big Thief’s sound may not be for everyone and there is definitely some room for improvement in their live stage presence, but there is something undeniably special about this band. Their ability to capture such a pure and crisp sound is eloquent and borders on the supernatural.
It is incredible to see any rising band play sell out shows when they originate over half the world away. Capacity is such a beautiful and powerful record which is more than worth your time, I don’t think this will be the last we’ll hear of Big Thief and I highly anticipate their return to the Brighton seafront in the not so far future.
Big Thief – Thekla, Bristol – 1st November 2017
It is a cold almost-evening in November. Brooklyn-based Big Thief begin their set at Thekla with ‘Paul’, a song from their debut album Masterpiece. Adrianne Lenker’s voice and a watery guitar pierce the quiet of the room. Like many of Lenker’s songs, ‘Paul’ is written in a voice that embodies something both tender and strong. It evokes the image of lit up petrol stations and night time drives with somebody you like but in a way that is hard to define. The quiet of the countryside. The band do not introduce themselves because they do not need to. It is clear that they are there to serve the music with their instruments and little else. This ego-death (not to be confused with shyness) is what makes Big Thief’s performance so cathartic to be a part of. For a moment I forget that I am in a room, on a ship, with more than 100 other bodies. It’s rare for a voice to do this – both haunting and otherworldly to witness. I wonder about the albums Adrianne listened to when she was growing up, who her favourite poets are.
Big Thief’s riffs are different live to how they sound in their albums. Partly, as a voice from the crowd dutifully notes, because their guitarist Buck Meek is not present (‘can we ask where Buck is? Is he okay?’). It turns out Buck is making a record of his own at the moment, that it’s really special and he will be back soon. The live sound isn’t lacking, though. Lenker’s guitar playing is complex and attentive. She transitions from folk-style fingerpicking to distorted riffs in moments. Occasionally, the songs will veer off into an improvised unfamiliar route – Lenker kneeling before initiating another electrifying solo and the band, as if one organism working in perfect symbiosis, react accordingly. It’s important to note how well Big Thief communicate with each other on-stage. Like poems, each note is carefully thought about but wild enough to come mostly from a place of feeling.
‘Shark Smile’ picks up the pace of the set. There is already an audience familiarity with the songs from their most recent album Capacity, which was released in June of this year. You can really trace the evolution of the band from its folk origins to the large space their sound now inhabits. The nucleus of Lenker’s songwriting remains unaffected, though. ‘Mythological Beauty’ is applauded after the first few bars. Lenker looks up from what appears to be a music-induced trance, talking to us in a way that is immediately reassuring. She reminds us that we are all on a boat, the same boat, and is surprised but delighted that ‘cheers’ is actually just a British way of saying ‘thank you’ (they have toured Capacity through several different countries, picking up a lot of languages of gratification along the way). This stepping over the invisible border between stage and crowd is done with quiet confidence.
Three new songs are previewed, and they are beautiful. I catch only a glimpse of the lyrics but they are poetic as always, if not a little more raw from the inside-out. Lenker’s songs are universal but specific at the same time (like all good art, I think). They are stories about families and messy love and homes as refugees – vast but geographically unspecific landscapes setting the scenes. The quiet moments, the quality of light or rain. In a political climate that makes it seem as if the only reactionary music that can exist should be angry, hyper-masculine displays of bar chord-driven rage, it is refreshing to see Lenker prove otherwise. From whisper to scream, Big Thief’s music is a reminder that you can be soft and powerful at the same time.
If their name appears in a city near yours at any point, go see them.