Big Thief review – subtle rockers make a grand noise

Albert Hall, Manchester
Despite a stage presence bordering on the self-effacing, the US indie folk quartet are a class act with a devoted following

Adrianne Lenker arrives on stage with her three bandmates to no fanfare except clamorous applause from the crowd. She’s the musical core of Big Thief, a quartet who seem to have doubled the size of their audience in the last 18 months. It’s not immediately apparent how or why; Lenker is intriguing but diffident, and almost awkwardly unshowbiz.

The band’s rising profile is down to old-fashioned word of mouth (everything is a bit old-fashioned with Big Thief) but also momentum generated by their third and fourth albums, filled with yearning lo-fi, indie folk, and released within just a few months of each other last year. First, UFOF, recorded in a cabin outside Seattle, and then Two Hands, produced 30 miles west of El Paso. They’re prolific songwriters; Lenker also released a solo album in 2018.

For decades, folk music has reflected a desire to escape urban anxiety in search of some neon-and-tech-free authenticity. It’s a feature of our age of uncertainty and austerity that there’s a raft of bands, particularly in America, immersing themselves in deep roots in a search for safety, enlightenment and quietude. I’m thinking Big Thief, but also of the Head and the Heart, and the National (Matt Berninger of the National has been known to cover Big Thief’s Not).

Big Thief at Manchester’s Albert Hall.
‘A tight unit with obviously close bonds’: Big Thief at Manchester’s Albert Hall. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Hushed, reflective music played by downbeat characters; it’s probably fair to say that Big Thief’s natural home would be a small function room above a fair trade cafe-bar. But the 1,800-strong, sell-out crowd at Albert Hall are clearly captured and enraptured. There’s loud applause between songs but then quiet, a half a minute’s silence before the music starts up again. There’s no chatter.

Terminal Paradise, first heard on Lenker’s solo album Abysskiss, isn’t a big-bang opener. The lights are subdued, the music is too. During Those Girls, the backing vocals by Buck Meek are barely audible.

Meek – whose meeting with Lenker in New York in 2012 marked the beginning of a musical collaboration that would evolve into Big Thief – is well turned-out in a Merle Haggard kinda way. He’s just about the most animated of the band, twisting his body gently with the music.

Proper longhairs, drummer James Krivchenia and bass player Max Oleartchik look like the rhythm section of a Little Feat tour support band from a 1975 episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test. Krivchenia is unshowy; during Mary he takes a drum solo, which he delivers with such a light touch he wouldn’t have woken next door’s baby. Oleartchik is wearing a fuchsia jumpsuit. It’s a nice touch, and several degrees brasher than Lenker’s beautifully neat charcoal-grey fitted suit.

Four songs in, the strumming starts to feel a little one-dimensional; there’s a spark missing, it’s all too comfortable to project and connect. But the applause keeps coming. Lenker addresses the crowd for the first time: “Thank you for being here.” And with Shark Smile we get a lift-off, of sorts.

Shark Smile starts with a squawl of fuzztone from Lenker’s guitar and the band go up a level, creating a sound as cutting as the lyrics, which tell of a road trip with an unhinged driver/lover: “Ninety miles down the road of a dead-end dream/ She looked over with a part smile.” Lenker writes captivatingly about attraction in all its pleasures and dangers, her words often a stream of semi-consciousness.

Adrianne Lenker at Manchester’s Albert Hall.
‘Stream of semi-consciousness’: Adrianne Lenker at Manchester’s Albert Hall. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Not many bands playing to 1,800 people would be brave enough to try out a couple of new songs, but Big Thief give it a go. When Lenker forgets the words, more than once, her stumbles endear her even more to the crowd, and precipitate a look or three from her bandmates, and a giggle.

A giggle and some hair-shaking aside, Lenker’s delivery is firm but restrained, the band’s demeanour introspective, insular. They’re a tight unit, with obviously close bonds, but they rarely look into the eyes of the crowd. In front of a less receptive and devoted audience – a half-cut, half-interested festival crowd, for example – that introspection might be an obstacle to winning hearts.

Breaking a silence after the song Shoulders, someone shouts out: “This is fantastic, thank you very much.” It’s a perfectly timed audience intervention; the band launch into Not, infused with some rock’n’roll energy and featuring a fantastic, extended guitar wig-out enriching the recorded version with extra madness.

Contact is a gorgeous song that starts hazily, almost comatose – Lenker singing of easeful death or some kind of blissful, sexual self-surrender – but then cracks open two-thirds of the way through, as if thrown into freefall by a lightning strike, the band going all guitar-heavy Neil Young and Crazy Horse on us. Yes, it’s that good; along with Not, it’s a standout song in the set.

They take an encore. Two songs later Big Thief leave the stage, Adrianne Lenker waves both hands, giving peace signs to the crowd. “Take care of yourselves,” she says.


Dave Haslam

The GuardianTramp

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