Big Thief at Union Transfer | photo by Paige Walter for WXPN
Big Thief gave a transcendent performance at Union Transfer
Big Thief has made massive strides in the music industry since making their debut in 2016 with Masterpiece. The name of their first record seems like a challenge — how do you follow a masterpiece? For Big Thief, it’s by pushing the boundaries of “indie music” and creating music that transcends trendiness for something significantly more heartfelt and moving.
Singer songwriter Adrianne Lenker’s lyrics are dense stories and sonnets with a paradoxical sense of grounded spirituality: her head’s both in the clouds and resting in the sun-warmed grass. Accompanied by fellow dreamers and “musicians’ musicians” — Buck Meek on lead guitar, James Krivchenia on drums, and Max Oleartchik on bass — Lenker and Big Thief as a whole represent avant garde music of our time.
On October 1st, Big Thief played the first of two sold out shows at Union Transfer. They opened the show by playing a number of new songs, most of which the crowd was unfamiliar. New music is a tough sell for large audiences, but Big Thief knows the strength of their live shows is their ability to surprise and excite. The opener of the show, after all, was genre-defying two-piece Mind Maintenance, who perform with old-world African instruments to create a purely meditative experience. About twenty minutes into their set, however, Big Thief played “Masterpiece,” their outstanding first single, and the crowd exploded.
Big Thief’s setlist covered songs from all four of their studio releases, but offered more than just the recordings. Lead guitarist Buck Meek’s solos were humble but noisy and impactful, and Lenker’s solo parts on the song “Not” and the intro to “Shark Smile” were drawn out and hazy. Lenker even belted out a punk-leaning spoken word version of “Black Diamonds,” the sweet ending track of sophomore album Capacity. Their loudest songs hit the hardest in an expansive room like Union Transfer. Anthemic “Not” brought the setlist to a screaming crescendo and faded out with Lenker echoing the lyrics “not winning, not winning, not winning…”
Ballads like “Paul” and “Mary” slowed the set down and gave members of the audience time to reflect and pull their friends in close. “Can I close and open once again / the question that I seek for reassurance,” Lenker gently crooned into the microphone for the solo acoustic song “Orange.” Big Thief doesn’t play encores, so when they announced the next song would be their last, the audience settled in for “Shoulders,” a cathartic tune from one of 2019’s twin releases. But when the song came to a close, Lenker hadn’t had enough. Big Thief then played “Blue Lightning,” a new song that let us glimpse into the future of this earth-shattering band. Fans of Big Thief’s folksier side rejoice — there’ll be more releases of that genre by Big Thief soon.