2019 was undeniably a good year for Big Thief – they released two critically acclaimed albums in UFOF and Two Hands and graduated into a band that now headlines festivals and comfortably fills venues like Hammersmith Apollo. Tonight’s show contained ample evidence of why their rise in popularity over the last year has been so steep as songs from their latest two albums mixed with earlier tracks to send their devoted followers home happy.
All lead vocalists are central to their band to some degree but we get an early indication of how this applies even more so to Big Thief and Adrianne Lenker during the opening two tracks Zombie and Orange. She plays them alone on acoustic guitar while the other three members of the band remain in their positions, eyes trained on her and taking in her every word just like the rest of the audience. They are the first of many stark, emotional appeals we’ll hear tonight.
It’s not hard to understand why they’re now filling venues of this size – people find comfort and catharsis in their music and are able to form strong personal bonds, especially with Lenker. Two Hands may be the best represented album tonight but they make generous concessions to their earlier work also. Masterpiece and Capacity, the title tracks from each of their first two albums offer gnarly, rambunctious contrasts to the earlier quieter moments. This dynamic variance is clearly one of their strengths and appears throughout tonight’s set. At one end of the spectrum there is the vulnerable, exquisite beauty of the likes of Mary and at the other end, the dissonance found at the beginning of Shark Smile.
Tracks from last year’s pair of albums impress most. From UFOF we get the surreptitious beauty of Contact, the fragile introspection of From and the rustic insecurity of Cattails. The latter in particular demonstrates how adept they are at sound tracking moments where life gets too much, Lenker singing of how “you don’t even know why when you cry”. Terminal Paradise, with Lenker again alone on guitar, strikes an even more poignant, doom-laden tone.
From the songs played tonight from Two Hands there’s a distressed candour within the guitar uncoiling on Not and a grainy sparseness to the likes of The Toy. Forgotten Eyes meanwhile is one of their most powerful moments to date, again indicative of how capable they are of giving a voice to feelings of inner turmoil, especially when Lenker sings of how “everybody needs a home and deserves protection”. The band continue to be led by Lenker, reacting to and playing around her. They play two new songs which suggests their rich run of creativity is still ongoing and they also include moments of improvisation like that at the end of Replaced, showing further signs of increasing self-confidence.
Towards the end of the night Lenker lists several people she would like to thank, justifying it by remarking how tonight “seems like a special occasion” as she gazes towards the back of the balcony. She has a point – tonight’s show had a strong sense of ‘the underdog comes good’, the sound of outsiders exceeding hopes and conquering new territory. As we leave we wonder just how big they could get.