Looking like they’ve lost their way searching for The Emerald City the four disparate characters on stage tonight are Big Thief. The Brooklyn-based band have actually just blown in from Bristol as they continue their epic European and North American tour. A global trek which, incidentally, is donating 1% of tour income to the climate change EarthPercent initiative.
Adrianne Lenker is a striking presence. A shorn head, sheer top and guitar – this is a cool warrior, a survivor and a purveyor of alt-folk country rocking masterpieces.
Opening with the plaintive Change – which also heralds the start of the Big Thief double album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You – Lenker immediately breaks hearts with her cry of “could I feel happy for you when I hear you talk with her like we used to?”. The poignancy of the flickering candle at the back of the stage isn’t lost on anyone.
Adrianne appears to lead Big Thief with a stoic resolve but the songs and the emotional delivery frequently crack that surface ice. More tracks from the Dragon album follow including the more urgent and immediate Time Escaping with its hint of Arcade Fire. Spud Infinity is all bluegrass on record and, like drummer James Krivchenia, has moments as mad as a box of swamp frogs – and the live version retains some of that dustbowl mood as Shepherd’s Bush has a metaphorical hoedown around a glowing campfire.
By contrast, the epic Not from the album Two Hands sounds positively industrial and leaves the country far behind and Masterpiece packs a similar punch. In an increasingly aggressive world Forgotten Eyes feels more topical in 2022 than it did in 2019 as Lenker laments “the wound has no direction, everybody needs a home and deserves protection…”.
Lenker gets cheerier on new song Happy With You…well she tries to anyway, but the repetitious chorus of “I’m happy with you, happy with you, happy with you…” sounds like she’s trying too hard to convince herself. Lenker sees this and wryly quips “I think that song’s called ‘Happy With You'”
Between songs the band find time to announce that it’s their guitar technician’s special day – “it’s Baileys birthday everybody…” inspiring rapturous applause as Big Thief play an impromptu free form rendition of Happy Birthday.
Guitarist, Buck Meek, almost subverts the American national anthem on the intro to Forgiven but everyone is already standing to attention. There are moments during the set when bassist, Max Oleartchik – complete with hanging plaits – leans, squats and sits on the stage adding incongruous levity to events. Max on drums gets in the zone too with some fantastic grimaces and very determined stick action. Adrianne misplacing a guitar capo before the acoustic gem Little Things adds further human randomness to what is a very tight performance.
There’s a noticeable absence of strings throughout the set which makes for fewer yee-haw moments – perhaps welcomed by those who prefer their folk to rock out. At the end, an encore featuring the shuffling and beautiful Sparrow, lands well too. It’s an auspicious start to the Big Thief four-night residency at Shepherd’s Bush.