Big Thief played a sold-out show at First Avenue last night with special guest Palehound. Before the foursome took the stage, a loop of mounting synths pulsated throughout the club while smoke machines filled the room. The audience jostled and whooped occasionally, but there was a palpable feeling of tense anticipation in the air as we waited, unsure of what to expect — like the moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the spaceship slowly opens to reveal light beaming from its hull.
Adrianne Lenker (guitar and vocals), Buck Meek (guitar and backup vocals), Max Oleartchik (bass), and James Krivchenia (percussion) stood in a wide crescent when the curtain rolled-up, and launched directly into the title track of their first studio album, Masterpiece.
Big Thief emerged on the indie music scene in 2016. Lenker and Meek have been releasing music together since 2014, though, while traveling around the country in a van (married for a period, but no longer). Earlier in October, the band released their second album of 2019, Two Hands, and five months prior unveiled its “sibling album” U.F.O.F. The releases quickly shot to the tops of Best Of lists with many critics praising them as at the pinnacle of modern indie music, though the fame hasn’t gone to their heads. Everything Big Thief did on stage last night, and have done in their careers on a larger-scale, seem radically genuine.
“We’re all just making music and art the way we would be if we didn’t have any support, if nobody knew our music at all,” Lenker told me earlier this month. “I think we would just continue to make records and burn CDs and play dive bars. We would be doing that either way. It doesn’t feel like we have anything to lose.”
Last night’s set started off with alternating uptempo tracks from Two Hands and their two earliest albums. At a session in The Current’s studio on Monday, the band explained how most of Two Hands was written on the road, a place they’ve called home for more than five years of touring. Their music, too, has a sense of movement. Lyrically tracks like “Shark Smile” and “Cattails” follow midwestern road trips. One imagines the highways allow for a way of being in the world that is continuously curious, something that has always marked Lenker’s songwriting.
In her 1967 essay on Bob Dylan, critic Ellen Willis equated folk’s fixation on “the road” to psychedelic music’s examination of “the trip.” Big Thief operate at the union of those two planes. Lyrically and sonically they are just grounding enough to keep listeners from flying off into space, while simultaneously revealing the “surreal” in the everyday. Last night, when Lenker swung into her upper register, it sounded as if she was holding her lyrics under a light source, unsure of their true meaning. In the same turn of phrase, she screamed relentlessly into the abyss.
One track played in the middle of the set, “Not,” always gets to me. It was the first single released off Two Hands, and the longest song on the album due to its incredible instrumental ending. Throughout the song, Lenker catalogues all the things “it” is not: “the energy reeling”; “the room”; “the vacant wilderness vying.” She doesn’t reveal what she is singing about, but if you listen hard, you can feel it. It’s the steadily thrumming bass line under the thrashing drums and Lenker’s reverb-heavy shredding, the way her voice breaks on the word “hunger”; it’s the grounded, humming presence of the subconscious when everything else is noise.
After “Not,” Lenker recuperated the crowd with an unreleased track, “Spud Infinity,” a campfire-sounding tune about freeing one’s personal “celestial body.” “When I say celestial, I mean extraterrestrial,” she sang with a slight twang, “I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart,” to laughs and cheers from the crowd. That sentiment rhymes with so much of Big Thief’s discography — U.F.O.F. is short for Unidentified Flying Object Friend, and Lenker often points out that the big mysteries of life don’t exist in space — they’re all right here, beside us and “between the molecules.”
Midway through the set, Lenker gazed out into the packed crowd and encouraged everyone to pretend we were at an intimate house show. “There are no good spots,” she assured us. “Take care of the people around you.” She also expressed gratitude to be playing the mainroom after so many years of making her way in the Minneapolis music scene as a teenager through cafes, dive bars, and later with Big Thief at 7th St. Entry. Lenker’s family, who still live in Minnesota, were among the audience, and she smiled into the stage lights thanking her parents, grandparents, cousins, and siblings. “I wrote this song at my grandparent’s piano,” she added before playing “Mary.”
Partway through “Mary,” though, Lenker stopped to thank her crew, listing each member from the merchandiser to the staff at First Avenue. It was evident she had an enormous gratitude for every support the band received. Funnily, she never introduced herself or other members of the band, but that didn’t feel like an oversight as much as her default response to how interconnected they all seemed; slipping seamlessly from one track to another, and nodding encouragingly across their wide circle.
Without ever announcing a last song, they were quickly back on stage for a double encore. “Terminal Paradise” first appeared on Lenker’s 2018 solo record and was reimagined with the full band on U.F.O.F. As Lenker played the ending chords, she fretted up, and once she had set her fret, continued to riff while tuning to a drop D and continuing onto 2017’s hit “Mythological Beauty.” It was an incredible technical feat, one I’ve never seen done live before, and made beautiful sense of the songs themes. “Terminal Paradise” is about the “trauma of being born” and how humans come and go from a place we have no recollection of. “Mythological Beauty” is a narrative-driven number about childhood trauma and the challenges Lenker’s young parents faced. The musical transition between the two emphasized an absence of boundaries between the metaphysical and reality; between life and death and everything in between.
Massachusetts-based rockers Palehound opened. Bandleader Ellen Kempner is an emotive performer and I found myself drawn into her facial expressions as she sung unabashedly about loneliness, grief, and self-worth. “Cinnamon” had the crowd dancing and “Your Boyfriend’s Gun” hushed the room with a tale of betrayal and young love. “When your beauty shattered/ I held the pieces up to light/ On me they casted ugly shadows,” Kempner sang, almost in a whisper.