A hype machine never ultimately serves anything but the money, and while Big Thief’s oft-touted status as the saviours of indie was and is unnecessary, you only have to hear the depth of songs and possibilities they have at their disposal and not see them as one of the most unpredictable explorers in the mainstream.
Beginning a new European tour in the UK, the band gave the first of a two-night run at the Hammersmith Apollo on Tuesday. Still in support of their latest record, 2022’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, Big Thief’s catalogue is already strong and varied enough to allow for consecutive nights with very different setlists.
The new album reflects the deep, old and weird folk history in American music more than the indie lineage in their first two, building on opposing approaches for layered and stripped-bare production which was brought forth on their two 2019 releases, Two Hands and U.F.O.F.
While most songs were indeed from the latest record, one of the things that makes a Big Thief date exciting is the very real possibility that they’ll do tunes rarely or never heard before, either an album off-cut or Adrianne Lenker solo, spontaneously revisited.
Such was the case again this time, with ‘Free Treasure’, a lilting acoustic love song delivered by Lenker alone. Other unreleased numbers peppered the set – the groove-centred ‘Horsepower’, ‘Ruined’, and ‘Vampire Empire’, the latter a full-throated indie love ballad, recently heard on the Late Show.
They’ve found marvellous ways to let both their elaborate and stripped production styles sound clearly live. But one of the signatures of the band’s live sound at present is that they’ll often choose to go harder and heavier.
The rushing, gossamer, autoharp-centred delicacy of the title track from Dragon… is turned into a slower, stompier song of distortion built on two driving chords, but it possesses its own different, unique power. It’s this ability to reinvent songs that might hopefully give the band the long-term live staying power of Dylan or Springsteen, whose mastery of styles is so deep it allows for an always playful approach to old work.
From their straighter indie roots, the band’s deeper mystical streak seems to have grown naturally out of frontwoman Lenker’s unique voice and even more singular lyrics. And as they’ve gone on, her guitar-playing has taken on as central a role as Buck Meek’s, whose virtuosically intuitive, subtle accompaniments are often less prominent live.
On the driving, constant build of the song ‘Not’, the extended climax is a roaring solo built around a few high notes. Whirling her distorted, wordless commentary on the lyrical quandaries of the song, Lenker takes centre stage in a minutes-long instrumental break, reaching and bending in churning pursuit of one note higher, deeper, out of reach. Her approach to the guitar is as intuitively direct and to-the-heart as her lyrics.
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In James Krivchenia (who produced Dragon…), Big Thief have a drummer who embodies their chameleon sound – he can anchor a devastating rocker or drift like a feather around Lenker’s vocals, subtly highlighting and accentuating; bassist Max Oleartchick’s laid-back, constant attention to the nuances makes the rhythm section overall a perfect complement to the intensity in what Meek and Lenker generally do.
Judging by the triumphant cries and bopping that took off around me, as the band closed the set with ‘Spud Infinity’, the complementarity of these four musicians has reached a place where they can create a danceable generational anthem based around the mantra: “What’s it gonna take / What’s it gonna take / To free the celestial body?” And I, for one, support this.
Big Thief are a band of intuition, deeply listening, organically in-tune and attentive to one another, each component shaped and fitted to make a living, moving sound. If the daring and weirdness of their songs and multiple freewheeling musical directions speaks to you, it can make for a very special show.