One of the biggest stealth success stories of recent years has been Big Thief, a US four-piece who have blossomed from scratchy beginnings to become one of the most prolific and adored leftfield guitar bands of recent times. On record, it’s not always clear why.
It is often hard to hear the forest for the trees in Big Thief’s music. Immediacy is no guarantor of good art, but Big Thief’s bangers are rare orchids indeed: there’s Paul, from their debut album, 2016’s Masterpiece, which they don’t play tonight. (Admittedly, that’s a boss move.) Not, from Two Hands, one of their twin 2019 albums, was nominated for two Grammys and praised by Barack Obama. It eventually proves pivotal on this first night of a sold out four-night residency in London.
Much of Big Thief’s sprawling recorded output has long seemed pleasant, if a little worthy and unfocused – folk-rock, or thereabouts, that pairs singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s oblique lyrics with intelligent, interlocking contributions from the rest of the band that can often take a few listens to bed in. And so it proves tonight, for a few songs.
They are a band you absolutely want to love – female-fronted, searching and sensitive, organically grown, tackling themes like the infinite as well as confessionals about love and loss. In Lenker, they have an heroic frontperson who, tonight, sports a number two buzzcut, whose childhood experiences in a religious cult and fluid sexuality have informed her band’s work. There are parallels here with other singular voices, like Sufjan Stevens, or Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra. And in guitarist Buck Meek, Big Thief also have a musician so admired he skipped several grades of dues-paying and landed the plum spot in Bob Dylan’s acclaimed Shadow Kingdom live stream band of last year.
As a unit, Big Thief have also overcome a vast existential threat – not Covid, but the divorce of their founding partnership, Lenker and Meek, a conscious uncoupling that has seen both parties survive, meet other people and break up with some of them, with band members releasing several solo albums and yet remaining committed to their “magical” joint project. Group therapy has been key.
But for all this, Big Thief can sometimes present as overearnest, hippy-ish North Americans with little quality control. Take Max Oleartchik, whose tasselled bass, moustache and pigtails ensemble tonight hint at time spent near drumming circles. When Big Thief attempt something lighthearted, they end up with a strange song about potatoes – Spud Infinity, which unsuccessfully rhymes “knish” with “finish”.
Tonight, though, it swiftly becomes apparent that Big Thief are extraordinary, albeit in bursts. What was shruggy on record comes to vivid, pulsating life.
On Change, mercurial guitarist Meek doesn’t so much play a solo as sprinkle beatific notes around with a series of birdlike twitches. He spends most of the evening on the balls of his feet, using the space, making everything sing as though by osmosis. Oleartchik often plays on one knee; throughout the gig, he will wander away from his amp and sit or crouch on the stage in, against all odds, an unaffected manner.
When Big Thief truly power up, it’s a privilege to be proved so wrong about them. The encore is Sparrow, from Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, a double album released last month, in which the biblical Eve takes centre stage. “She has the poison inside her! She talks to snakes and they guide her!” seethes Lenker in character as Adam, a figure whose distress is probably accusation, but could be concern.
Great on record, hair-raising live, Not is a revelation, worth the price of admission alone. It’s a song about absence, in which Lenker tries to define something by what it is not.
More audacious than that, half the song is given over to Lenker’s electric guitar solo – a sceptic-converting firework display derived from the spacious Neil Young school, but wound far more tightly, full of frustration and suffering, angry and ecstatic at the same time. Lenker solos on electric a few more times, an approach that raises the question why Big Thief bother with so much mellifluous Americana filler when they could routinely blow the roof off every venue with Lenker’s gnarly power and Meek’s revolutionary un-playing.
The answer is: because Big Thief are an awkward bunch who love roots music, healthily represented on their recent double album. As though they didn’t have enough new songs to play, the band essay a handful of even newer, unrecorded tracks – one of them, as yet untitled, finished on the ferry over from Ireland, Lenker tells us.
Happily, Forgiver, also new, is another electric stunner, again indebted to Neil Young, about forbidden love. “Your daddy wants you to love a man,” Lenker sings, “and if you keep your arms around me it could ruin the plan.” She delivers some of it with her face in her hands, then embraces her guitar as though it were the lover from the lyrics.