Big Thief review – brawny folk-rockers beguile the big leagues

Hammersmith Apollo, London
The New York group play their biggest-ever gig, and captivate thousands with unshowy, confidently beautiful songcraft

‘It just feels like a celebration!”, Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker says after thanking their tour manager, merch wrangler, sound person and others, like a meandering Oscar acceptance speech. With 5,000-odd people, she says this is the biggest concert the New York quartet have ever played, and their humility and joy is heartwarming.

The momentum to launch them into indie-rock’s big leagues has come from the extraordinary pair of albums they released last year: just as listeners were blissing out with the pristine fingerpicked neo-folk of UFOF, they were cuffed on the shoulder by its earthier, rockier follow-up, Two Hands. These built off the cult adoration of Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017) that set out their stall: confident beauty played unadorned, as if in a suburban breeze-block garage.

That directness is revived here. There is an almost comical disconnect between the size of the stage and the band’s setup: a little gathering of amps; a small, low drumkit; no backdrop or props. The group resemble two pairs of siblings thrust together because they live on the same street: Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek are dapper and suited, the rhythm section of Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia rumpled and videogame ready.

Lenker begins with two solo acoustic numbers, Zombie and Orange, the rest looking on appreciatively. Her voice is such a core part of Big Thief. Trilling prettily with a hint of wildness in her higher register, it hardens and darkens in her mid-range, flaking into huskiness below. But as the others start up, they prove to be no backing band – drummer Krivchenia is particularly key, bringing pattering brushwork to new song Two Rivers, and a superb breakbeat to an even better new one, Time Escaping, with a fluting melody from Lenker as she ponders splintering dimensions.

In a strong set, two songs stand out as modern classics. Not is a triumph of rhythmic language, and continues the Crazy Horse-style brawny country-rock they play so well tonight on Real Love. The gently heel-stomping Cattails, meanwhile, has the same kind of ruminative yet decisive melody that Johnny Cash used to sing. Big Thief had better get used to playing big rooms such as these.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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