Live Music + Gig Reviews

Adrianne Lenker @ Barbican, London

28 April 2024

Big Thief singer plays a set infused with tenderness and vulnerability, showing how the connection she has with her fanbase only continues to grow and deepen

Adrianne Lenker (Photo: Germaine Dunes)

Adrianne Lenker (Photo: Germaine Dunes)

Big Thief shows have a deserved reputation for being cathartic events where a sort of elevated communion is established between artist and audience. As the focal point of the group Adrianne Lenker inspires a particularly strong sense of connection and dedication (something which caught this writer out earlier this year when arriving at Shepherds Bush Empire just after doors had opened, only to find the venue already completely full of fans who had assembled hours early).

There was a similar sense of ardent fandom on display at the Barbican for this show by Lenker (her third of the weekend) on the back of the release of her second solo album Bright Future. The early stages confirmed how she doesn’t really play by any accepted rules, beginning with two new songs, two unreleased Big Thief songs and a ten year old song she released with Big Thief bandmate Buck Meek.

The two new songs land powerfully, the first something of a straightforward love song straight from the heart, the other equally hard-hitting and featuring the lines “I’ve been lost drunk, I’ve been lost sober”. Lenker later comments how she is “playing a handful of really new things just to test them out”. Regardless of how unfamiliar the audience may be with these songs they are still received rapturously and listened to in reverential silence.

Gradually, she eases her way into her back catalogue with the help of associates Nick Hakim on piano and Josefin Runsteen on violin and percussion. Songs from Bright Future appear, each one slight in size and introspective in nature. Real House is still remarkably poignant, each line making a deeper impact than the last. No Machine and Donut Seam follow, both sparse and economical but with melodic appeal. The lyrics of the latter see her redirect broader environmental themes back to personal, private concerns (“This whole world is dying, don’t it seem like a good time for swimming, before all the water disappears? Now our love is dying, don’t it seem like a good time for kissing? One more kiss, one more kiss to last the years”). Free Treasure meanwhile already sounds like a classic that has been around for years. Moments of superb songcraft like this confirm the remarkable creative run she has been on, Bright Future coming on the back of Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, Two Hands and UFOF by Big Thief.

She dips into her 2020 solo album Songs for Not A Lot, Just Forever and Soft Focus, the latter being prefaced by Lenker looking down at her setlist before remarking “oh, the next song is a fun one” despite it containing references to gun stores and being in a cemetery at night. Amid the seriousness there is plenty in the way of endearing self-deprecation and lighthearted humour. Later, she thanks many people who helped make the shows happen, including her driver and tour manager (“You know the tour is going to be good when your driver is called Life and your tour manager is called Hook”).

The most poignant moment comes during Anything where she momentarily forgets one of the lines, then asks the audience to fill in for her, which then evolves into them providing soft, respectful backing throughout the rest of the song. She returns to play a short encore of Steamboat from her 2014 Hours Were The Birds album before finishing with Sadness As A Gift, one of the highlights of Bright Future.

Whether abstract or figurative her songs are always infused with tenderness and vulnerability and shows like tonight prove how she gets a lot out of a little. There might still be something asymmetrical and unconventional about her music but their emotional power cannot be questioned and with each show the connection she has with her fanbase only grows and deepens.

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More on Adrianne Lenker
Adrianne Lenker @ Barbican, London
Adrianne Lenker – Bright Future
Adrianne Lenker – Songs & Instrumentals