Exploring the solo songwriting of Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek at Johnny Brenda’s and Arden Gild Hall
Indie powerhouse Big Thief has been steadily producing albums to a growing cult following since 2016. With four full-lengths already under their belt — two of them released during 2019 — and one just announced for February 11th, it appears the group never stops writing and recording. Although Big Thief’s fans are hungry, and the demand for new music certainly exists, their growing output is more likely the result of the group’s songwriting duo — Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek — having more material than they can keep in their minds alone. And their respective solo projects prove it.
Under her own name, Adrianne Lenker records bare, finger-plucked songs with her soft-yet-powerful voice front and center. Her lyrics hold as much tenderness and tension as the rhythms she so intentionally strums. The intimacy of her music is startling and chilling, and fans will surely recognize it as the backbone of all Big Thief songs. Lenker released her third collection of songs — aptly named songs — under her own name only in 2020 as a response to the cancelation of Big Thief’s tour that year (you can imagine why). The first time she performed it for the Philadelphia region was last Friday, November 12th at Arden Concert Gild.
The setting was perfect: a humble wood-paneled hall decorated with string lights in the art colony of Arden, DE. An audience member described the location as “summer campy.” Lenker performed a generously-long set sitting down with her acoustic guitar, with songs spanning her whole discography and even a couple new ones. The audience was silent except during “Anything,” a standout track from songs that she encouraged audience participation with. The crowd surprisingly had little issue reciting such complicated lines as “Circle of pine and red oak / circle of moss and fire smoke / fan on the ceiling like a wheel spoke / push the clutch and I pull the choke” while Lenker sang in a lower harmony.
Before Lenker’s humbling performance, her band-mate Buck Meek was at Johnny Brenda’s on November 6th. A Texas-born songwriter with blues and western influences, Meek sticks out in the Northeast. The slow-moving, blue-collar narratives he spins are unfamiliar to us urban east-coasters, but are warmly welcomed. As you would expect from any member of Big Thief, Meek recognizes the nuances of life. His records — including 2021’s Two Saviors — are equal parts heartache, humor, and optimism, complete with the unmistakable twang of his voice and untraceably organic strum pattern of his guitar.
In a live setting, Buck Meek forfeits the lead guitarist role — although he’s plenty capable of commanding it — for the singer/songwriter position. Adam Brisbin instead lights up the pedal board with spellbinding shredding. In the middle of Meek’s set, the southern gentleman invited the audience to dance, and enjoy the music with one another instead of staring straight ahead at the stage. There was little audience protest as we swayed gently in the dim light of Johnny Brenda’s.
Lastly, this review would be incomplete without the inclusion of the lovely openers, Lutalo for Lenker and Kidi Band for Meek. The former seems cut from Adrianne’s cloth, playing vulnerable songs on acoustic guitar — his live set a stripped down version of his normally studio-produced sound that makes creative use of distortion and drum beats. And Kidi Band, the percussive and rhythmically-dynamic soundscape trio, have the power to transform a space completely. The group’s guitar player, Steven van Betten, is a friend and collaborator of Buck Meek, and runs his own online music school, School of Song.
Looking ahead, Big Thief’s February release will be a double LP titled Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, which is the most “Big Thief” name there ever was. The band’s four members will reunite in early 2022 for a tour starting overseas in France, then back to the states (unfortunately by-passing Philadelphia), and then back again overseas to Germany. Judging by the singles they’ve shared so far, fans can expect a new iteration of Big Thief’s sound, one that’s still a delicate hybrid of the band’s two songwriters.