Wednesday, 11 March 2020
Big Thief on tour
BIG THIEF at
Hammersmith Apollo, London (27 Feb)
Rock City, Nottingham (29 Feb)
Albert Hall, Manchester (1 Mar)
Ancienne Belgique, Brussels (5 Mar)
Paradiso, Amsterdam (6 Mar)
Every time you see Adrianne Lenker, she’s three different people. This month I’ve seen her five times.
It started like this. Last year I watched her enchant Union Chapel, picking at an outsized acoustic guitar, tooth missing, hiding behind a thatched fringe, whispering whimsical self-penned songs that seemed to be about potatoes but were suddenly about the cosmos. Four months later (two of which I’d spent in hospital), she played the Roundhouse with her band Big Thief, four disparate, perfectly and weirdly simpatico Brooklyn alt-folk scenesters.
She’d shaved her head and she was just screaming. Swaggering and screaming, guitar like a machine gun.
Later in 2019, her band played Bush Hall in one of those small miracles that London serves up now and again: announcement on Thursday, on sale Friday, gig on Monday, previewing their second album of the year, Two Hands, doing it in full for the-first-and-only-time, figuring out how to play these songs live, before our eyes, something between a workshop and a front seat to history. Since then they’ve been lauded by Pitchfork, the Guardian, and Barack Obama(‘s PR consultants), but it was how the shows made me feel. After Suede and the Manics gave way to The Strokes and The White Stripes, I thought I was through with bands – that really bands were the kind of thing you grow out of, like Ricicles or the Socialist Workers’ Party. Then The National came along and asked if that was in any way a tenable position. Big Thief set fire to it.
I had tickets to the London show, had the flyer magnet-pinned to my fringe for close to a year, but Big Thief aren’t a one-evening proposition. They’re mercurial and explosive, allergic to convention and setlists – to having a set list for more than one night in a row, even to sticking to the one drummer James Krivchenia has written – and seeing them just once suddenly seemed perverse. Like listening to Mahler’s Ninth once, enjoying it and then smashing the vinyl on the sideboard. Instead I could spend all my money going to Nottingham. And Manchester. And Brussels. And Amsterdam. Anywhere there were sympathetic Burins with fold-out sofas and an accepting attitude to turning up two hours early for gigs.
OK, I missed Glasgow and Paris somewhere in there, but the five shows were like a suite, or a Gus Van Sant film from back when he was great, and I’m left with this: a series of impressions, a juggling of snapshots, a succession of reinventions: the same but different, different but the same.
Hammersmith is first and it’s your erratic epic – their biggest gig ever, perhaps their longest. Big Thief are the only band whose singer’s hair is a continuing psychodrama of its own, and she turns up looking like Henry V. “He that outlives this day, and comes safe home/Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named/And rouse him at the name of Crispian,” says the grown Hal, and Lenker is a soul obsessed with home: the “good home” of ‘Parallels’, the home that everyone deserves in ‘Forgotten Eyes’, the home confused for a refuge in ‘Rock and Sing’. And this few, this happy few, this band of brothers so fierce in their gentle, sporadic, lolloping way: three men and this androgynous tour-de-force, Lenker unshaven and muscular and suited, spinning tortured love songs that are, upon inspection, not love songs at all but explorations of the male selves that at times flicker to her forefront. “Oh, the last time I saw Paul,” she breathes in one of their debut album’s heartstopping moments, “I was horrible and almost let him in.”
There are concessions to commercialism, or at least pragmatism, in London, but Big Thief are still just so irregular and counter-intuitive, and weird, and heavy, and fey. Which other band would kick off a landmark show with a new song called ‘Zombie Girl’, played acoustic and solo? Which band would meet every ovation with a wistfully abstruse deep cut? Or consent to an encore (by no means a given) from a pissed-up crowd of 5,000, do only a subdued ‘Rock and Sing’ and then leave. They quietly reinvent the Spotify Top Songs stuff – angular guitars, drum-and-vocal bridges, rolling rhythms – but at that stage I’m just getting attuned to it. I leave muttering something about Lenker being the only New Dylan since Dylan. You know in ‘Love Minus Zero’ when he sings, “My love, she speaks like silence”, or ‘Visions of Johanna – “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face” – well no-one writes like that. But Lenker does. Not like Dylan, exactly –because what’s special about that? – but prolifically singular, with his perfect abstract specificity. “Your eyes were like machinery,” she sings in ‘Mary’. “Your hands were making artefacts in the corner of my mind.”
At Nottingham’s Rock City, bathed in blue, they manufacture atmosphere, then feed off it, swelling to twice their size (I’m on the front row now), pressing inexorably forward. “I love you, Adriana,” yells a male voice from the back of the room. Lenker scowls, says nothing. He says it once, twice, half-a-dozen times. She looks at her feet. It’s when two teenage girls begin to speak, freaking out at being in the same room with her that she engages. “I just love these songs so much,” says one, pushing her way forward, beginning to cry. Lenker, who’s crouching down over her guitar to fiddle with the amps, smiles, contorts her fingers into a thin and sturdy heart.
The show is intense, and in its intensity the tour’s themes start to reveal and congeal. You realise what a political record Two Hands is, with a directness that can only be communicated in person. ‘Not’ is an explosion of cathartic anguish, with something of Sleep Well Beast’s state-of-the-nation remit, a list song that exalts through endless negation, like Cole Porter just went fucking mental. Seen through the squall are Bible-old traumas and rampaging ills: climate emergency, consumerism, mortality, listlessness, loneliness. And at some point words are no longer enough, no matter how perfect the words, like when the harmonica comes in at the end of Dylan’s Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, and then ‘Not’ spirals into horror, madness, purposeful fury, and finally release; a howl, a blast of noise, a guitar solo that’s half-rehearsed, half-improvised, and by Amsterdam will be refined, Lenker no longer on her haunches, twiddling amp dials, but trading sonic perfection for picturesque rage, because the display, the physicality is part of the thing, if not the whole thing.
‘Forgotten Eyes’ is empathetic: a big hug, a socialist manifesto viewed through a hippy aesthetic. But ‘Shoulders’? That’s merely harrowing: domestic violence in primary colours, the sins of the father as anthem; at one point I turn half-around to see the whole crowd chanting in unison; it’s a definite moment, but it isn’t comfortable. In Manchester, Lenker will turn ‘The Toy’ into a stylised pantomime, her right hand a gun firing skywards as childhood play turns into misadventure, love transmogrifies into murder, and the horror of sudden, eyes-wide realisation twists America into an apocalyptic hellscape. But that’s not yet: here it’s just fraught and ugly. As these new songs flex their muscles, others are dragged into the present: the political present; the musical now – dragged upwards as the band degenerate into grunge. And then when it’s over, there’s just ‘Magic Dealer’, gentle as a sparrow in the dawn.
Manchester, though, is about those gestures. Lenker stretches out a hand towards the child by her side, before ‘Capacity’ turns introspective. She tracks a tear down her cheek. She fires the finger-gun. Birds fly away. And in ‘Masterpiece’s new, stompy segue, she clomps across the stage in black boots, facing away, the song as funky as it can ever get and still stab you in the heart. Because when she’s stopped playing at being the rockabilly George Clinton, she’s still got to go back to the mic, got to tell us that there’s only so much letting go you can ask someone to do.
She is avian. High cheekbones and a hooked nose. The wild, ethereal twitter of her head voice. And when she nods to a fast, burgeoning riff, ‘Shark Smile’ coming to life, her heads bobs and juts like a pigeon’s. Yes, she’s birdlike. Almost brittle. But her middle-range is powerful and her lower-range is brutal, and there’s such strength in this band. They’re pastoral and sensitive, but if you pollute that lake, they are going to fucking kill you. She handles her guitar like a feminist manifesto, and though it’s hard to find a new way of playing guitar live, rock clichés sit lightly on you when you’re a genius. Lenker moshes with a Beatle cut, backpedals as she thrashes out chords, delicately stamps her feet and shakes her head as ‘Forgotten Eyes’ takes shape, and screams as ‘Contact’ is made: the long, slow prelude, then skin touches skin, or metal touches brain, or a mind lurches awake, or somewhere in that vast empty blackness, something responds.
So often, her eyes are closed, and they flicker open to gaze into yours or just into the middle distance. She breaks sparingly but completely into a smile, into nervous laughter. There are thank yous, at times that feeling of being quietly overwhelmed that a band get when they’re suddenly big, but that comes only when they speak, and the spell of impetus slackens. In Brussels there’s a soliloquy about Europe. The cobbled streets… the beauty… wanting to go there, but feeling afraid. It’s not scary, though, it’s people, says Lenker – and stone. In Minnesota, everything was thin, but… no… there’s beauty there too, and she’s into ‘Cattails’, which rocks, but like a hand on a cradle, a part-cryptic bucolic lullaby, a deceptive 12-string dance track about the natural world, full-to-choking with beauty, in its imagery, its sounds, its meter. “And the clusters fell, like an empty bell,” sings Lenker, the rhythm so infectious that she’s proto-rapping. “Meteor shower at the motel.” It makes my throat swell.
She plays around with those rhythms, always. In ‘Mary’, her hypnotic, lulling fast-talking can either speed or drag, make the song lost and dreamlike, or else relentless and pretty; she injects urgency, uncertainty, certainty into ‘Not’. The freakout jams are different every night.
The setlist changes every night too, but there are runs of songs, and you get to know them. ‘Masterpiece’ into ‘Capacity’ – sad and sensual, spinning the heartbroken lover trope into bisexual erotica – then ‘Shark Smile’ and sometimes ‘Real Love’, that exquisitely painful smash-and-grab that takes one look at songs that glorify abusive relationships and decides that actually I’ll probably be alright, thanks – and suddenly you’re the kid watching his alcoholic mum get the shit beaten out of her by its dad. In Brussels, the poignancy almost drowns you, the “hummingbird” passage offbeat, strange and haunting, like it’s broken out of The Innocents: a quiet, haunting new song, the child’s song, suddenly growing out of this old one. In Amsterdam that’s gone forever, but the song is a monster, stretched out and violent. That show is the heaviest of the lot, ‘Shark Smile’ sped up, aggressive but still insouciant, its lust barely dampened by its auto-wreck tragedy.
Then there’s the acoustic stretch: for some of it the band take a back seat and, in bassist Max Oleartchik’s case, a literal one. ‘Orange’ is one of the loveliest, most straightforward songs Lenker has ever written – that’s played in London, then comes back for the Benelux gigs. There are new tracks: the conventionally attractive ‘Zombie Girl’; ‘Dried Roses’, premiered in Nottingham, which takes Lenker’s whimsical-metaphysical thing near to the point of parody but damn-near breaks you anyway; and ‘Time Escaping’, which eludes me still; I don’t remember it, nor how it goes. Maybe one day. She’s backed by the band for ‘Happiness’ – another list song, Lenker-style – for the rocky ‘Bruiser’, for the gorgeous ‘Two Rivers’, which meanders through familiar territory with an iridescent beauty. She picks a repetitive pattern over Krivchenia’s brushwork, voice scaling mountains of arpeggios, checking out the scenery, until finally she gets to the crux of it, words trembling: “Is it a crime to do what you ask me to?”
Krivchenia is a superb drummer, and his languorous expression – leaning forward, mouth lolling open – sets some sort of tone. He cracks one smile in five nights. Oleartchik – feet bare, clad in a pink onesie or a dress, often-times perched on a stack of amps – is unaffected, unobtrusive and unfussy, as if he’s scarcely realised he’s playing bass. And Buck Meek, extreme left of the stage, as Lenker is centre-right, has his knee eternally bent, slim shoes that feel like they should be winkle pickers, leaning towards her, towards Krivchenia, looming almost, lurching with those thin legs as he issues spare notes and shimmering soundscapes, but his talent sublimated to his group, with just the odd lead guitar part. And sometimes he’s scarcely playing at all, but fuck me those vocal harmonies, lifting ‘Mary’ and ‘Masterpiece’ still higher – and it’s only when he comes in, adding to Lenker’s voice, to Krivchenia’s, to Oleartchik’s, that you realise those sharply uptilted Texan vowels were what was missing. High forehead, hair like corn drifting back in a stack at the back of his head; guileless, polite, deceptively brilliant; when Lenker goes off, and yes she goes off, he instinctively complements her crackling invention, their chemistry absolute, and you think of that photo of them in front of the camper van on the front of ‘A Sides’, when they were a couple, perhaps halfway to getting married. In Amsterdam there’s even a rare concession to practicality, as he gets a solo spot, because he’s back later in the month as a solo supporting act, and he has tickets to sell.
So yes it’s a band, and if they ever split up, I will cry, but for all that it’s Lenker’s band. Walking on stage with wet hair, in high-waisted trousers, stripping off her suit jacket to unmask a sleeveless top – white or blue or khaki – after a frenetic guitar solo, an illegible tattoo snaking down her arm, she holds you for 90, 100 minutes in her thrall. She comes face-on to the audience just once, as ‘Masterpiece’ reaches its zenith; otherwise she’s off to one side, one of four points, but the driving force, content in her endless capacity. With three people, and three people herself.