Philly loves Big Thief. The last time the four piece alt-folk rock group was in town, they played two nights at Union Transfer, and this time they packed the house at Franklin Music Hall on the strength of 2022’s spectacular double LP Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You.
Like other sold out shows at the 3,000 person capacity venue, this one was electric, and filled up fast. The line waiting to get in before doors was no doubt mitigated by the freezing cold temperatures outside. If you wanted a good spot to watch the show, you had to be there well before the opener, but for this crowd especially, that would be no sacrifice knowing Big Thief’s own Buck Meek was starting off the night.
His band — including Adam Brisbin on guitar, Austin Vaughn on drums, and Mat Davidson (aka Twain) on pedal steel — played an equally weighted mix of old songs from 2021’s Two Saviors, and new songs off an upcoming album Meek announced for later this year. The bandmates share a warm and natural chemistry, and weave in and out of each other’s delicate playing with a shared mind. For those who’ve never heard Meek’s solo music, I’d be remiss to mention his Texas roots. A healthy dose of twang and good-natured Southern charm colored the set. The crowd on the floor was soaking it all in, while the crowd at the bar to the right of the stage, where I was shuffled into after taking photos upstage, was buzzing and chatty.
Soon enough Big Thief took the stage, conscientiously wasting no time. From the first songs, a trifecta of favorites from three different albums, “Forgotten Eyes,” “Shark Smile,” and “Certainty,” it was a show to behold. As in the past, the band was also unafraid to play new songs, and gave us several unreleased compositions to pour over. Stay tuned for “Vampire Energy,” “Words,” and “Happiness”; they’re an indication that what’s to come follows the precedent set by DNWMIBIY: that Big Thief songs at their best are grand anthems imagined by all four players together.
What’s more is singer Adrianne Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, and drummer James Krivchenia looked downright giddy at times playing the new songs especially. While some of my favorite albums were written by songwriters during times of personal pain and grief, and Big Thief can certainly handle those subjects, as an audience it felt radical to participate in the pure joy they create.
The star of the night, to many’s surprise, was Mat Davidson, a longtime collaborator in the Big Thief extended family, who is mentioned earlier for playing pedal steel in Buck Meek. He joined Big Thief on stage to play fiddle for a string of songs including illustrated still life “Dried Roses” and raucous campfire album-finisher “Blue Lightning.” Besides his Big Thief credit, Davidson is also a songwriter in his own rite, Lenker’s favorite songwriter to be specific, as she shared with the crowd. “Or at least in the top five.” She earnestly insisted we listen to Twain, the name of Davidson’s solo project, who’s been captivating a cult audience for about a decade now. 2022’s Noon is a spiritual exploration of matters concrete and abstract, written with the prose of a Great American author without the pretense.
When it was time for an encore, Big Thief returned to the stage in a straight line showcasing every player including Lenker’s brother Noah, who added the jangly jaw harp on “Spud Infinity” and “Red Moon.” Perhaps overwhelmed by the size of the crowd, Lenker remarked it was hard for her to come back out, being in her head for most of their performance. For an indie band whose players began as buskers, it’s not hard to imagine that the die-hard level of enthusiasm from the crowd is startling, though I’m sure deeply appreciated.
Big Thief’s success as a band, if I were to try and pinpoint it, comes from the deep well of heart each player performs from, as well as their off-beat spirit, implicitly comforting listeners that sensitivity and love are making a comeback in what often feels like a cold and disconnected world. Although not striving toward perfection, Big Thief finds it anyway.