In a pop and rock landscape dominated by solo troubadours and urban acts, a four-piece indie band is something of a rare beast these days. And the Big Thief are feted as an endangered species, judging by the first of two nights of the American-folk group at the important Hammersmith Apollo in London. With five albums to their credit and four Grammy nominations to their name, they’re a big deal. A fan on Twitter had been going on three nights in a row, eager to see the ‘magical telepathy’ the band exudes on stage (they also play Brighton on Thursday), and the air was certainly thick with anticipation.
But I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. This was a show that contained moments of mesmerizing beauty and spine-tingling chaotic intensity. Yet he also caved in, with periods that were neither revealing nor joyous. Concerts like this one – with the most bare-bones sets, no screens and little interaction between songs – work when reveled in their stripped-down fragility or raw frankness. Yet, somewhat like the upright bass that sat intact behind the band, I too often felt like a spare. I wanted to be moved and beaten and my emotional strings played. And it was to my utter disappointment that I wasn’t.
The Big Thief comprises vocalist and guitarist Adrianne Lenker, bassist Max Oleartchik, drummer James Krivchenia, who produced their latest album, and guitarist Buck Meek, who was married to Lenker until 2018 and was a part of the band in Bob Dylan’s concert film Shadow Kingdom in 2021. They are prodigiously talented musicians. Lenker in particular has a fascinating history: She grew up in a Christian sect and released her first solo album at 14. Their latest album, 2022’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, featured 20 tracks from this broad musical spectrum.
Meek’s guitar solos were often great. It was rather something to behold: his position involved leaning forward and balancing on his toes, his guitar cradled high on his waist with his torso nearly enveloping him. And his guitar interplay with Lenker on Simulation Swarm was crisp and funky.
Lenker herself had a voice capable of both power and delicacy. She reminded me of the late Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries. Free Treasure – played solo by Lenker on an acoustic guitar – was lovely. And the opening song to the encore Change, about embracing the inevitability of change no matter how hard, was undoubtedly the highlight of the concert.
But I wanted more moments like this. The explosive song Not, which was included in Barack Obama’s Songs of the Year playlist in 2019, sounded confusing to me. The lo-fi hoedown was fun, but not as important as everyone else seemed to find it.
The reasons behind Big Thief’s popularity are obvious: they play serious, intense, big-hearted music. They have an authenticity and honesty that many current musicians lack. But I wanted endless punches of sucker gut-wrenching emotion. I only have a few. I guess I felt a little ripped off.
Play in London and Brighton until 13th April; bigthief. net