Big Thief


When Donald Trump’s twitter account was recently disabled and the leader of the free world found himself with nothing to do, I’d like to imagine he took the opportunity to have a few minutes, just for himself. That he sent his aides away, went into the Oval Office and closed the door, and reached for his Big Thief LPs.

I doubt very much this happened, but I wish it had. I wish he had the opportunity to open up and be reminded of everything he should be, but is not; ego-less, empathetic and appreciative of human frailty.

Sadly for Trump he has none of these positive qualities, but we should be glad there are people like Big Thief around to redress the balance.

In the last two years, Adrianne Lenker (guitar, vocals), Buck Meek (guitar), Max Oleartchik (bass) and James Krivchenia (drums) have crafted two stunning yet understated albums in Masterpiece and Capacity, two records that speak candidly of vulnerability and resilience and the ambiguities of love and family history.

Whilst an obvious focus of attention are the lyrics of Lenker, mined as they are from her personal experience, we shouldn’t forget her songwriting ability is also extraordinary. She crafts little “birdsnests” of songs, seemingly fragile but actually slender and strong.

An equal and complementary strength of the band is their ability to segue between musical styles, ranging from the indie rock of tonight’s opener ‘Masterpiece’ to the lo-fi country of ‘Mary’. A further highlight of the live set is ‘Mythological Beauty’, which ticks along like the most exquisite clockwork toy, one of those songs that seems to have always been there, waiting to be written by the right person.

What is particularly striking tonight is their confidence when performing these musical gems live to adopt their palette of styles as the songs and situation demands. In the live setting it can be hard to grasp the lyrical subtleties within these songs, but their emotional impact is in no way diminished. We may not catch every nuance of her wordplay but the sentiments are laid bare through the performance.

The band are performing this series of dates without Buck Meek, as he takes some time to work on his solo projects. I was interested to see how this would affect the performance as his playing and backing vocals usually create a balanced counterpoint to Lenker, but he is not missed, such is the strength of the songwriting and Adrianne’s performance. I am surprised by how assured Adrianne is tonight. This may be due to her having to take on more duties in the absence of Buck, but in this setting I would suggest it is in no small part also due to the subtle backing provided by Max and James. They are exemplars of understated and nuanced playing, creating the lightest of frameworks in which Lenker’s songs can breathe.

That is not to say they can’t rock out when the situation demands, but I am struck by both their musical and their emotional sensitivity. It seems that each musician is totally in the service of the songs and the stories Lenker brings to life. But they are are also in service to each other in a way I have not seen before. This is apparent when I begin to notice that Oleartchik will crouch on the stage at some point, so as not to distract from the more intense or exposed moments in Lenker’s performance

It is clear there is a lot of warmth and mutual respect between the band members, and it is a quiet joy to witness the affirmation they share with Lenker throughout. Adrianne is the leader of the band and sets the tone. But when Big Thief perform it is a truly collective effort. a shared experience of exploring these songs and seeing where they can take them emotionally, while showing us a better way to treat each other.

And this sense of mutuality and respect for each other is highlighted further when Adrianne responds to some shouted praise of her band.

“I don’t like to hear measurements. It makes me uncomfortable when people say they like us better (than other bands).” When someone shouts out “but we’re at YOUR gig” Adrianne responds beautifully.

“Its not our gig per se. We’re just in a space…All of us are here.”

We should be glad that they are.

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