BY KATRINA HAUSER//
It’s a Thursday night at The Anthem and it seems like every hipster in D.C. has thrown on their stripes and wide-framed glasses to catch the Big Thief concert. People are buzzing around with beers in hand, enjoying the break following the ambient electronic sounds of opener Kara-Lis Coverdale, when the band takes the stage. It takes my eyes a second to find Adrianne Lenker, the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, who takes her spot all the way to the left rather than front and center. It instantly asserts the band as a unified front, something they only prove further with their sound by the time they’re halfway through “Not,” the first song of the set pulled from their 2019 album Two Hands.
And really, it’s Big Thief’s large, all-encompassing sound that takes center stage for the entire show. The band rarely stops to chat throughout their 16-song set besides for Lenker to whisper a soft “thank you” after the crowd bursts with energy. It instills the notion that the audience is present just to appreciate the music and vibe, and with good reason: their sound undergoes quite a transformation when performed live. While her quiet expressions of gratitude are reminiscent of the airy, mellow tone Lenker casts over most of the tracks on Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, their 20-song long epic LP released earlier this year, these are the only instances where her voice isn’t pulling itself up to equal footing with the powerful instrumentals.
Live, the band rocks out, bringing a much fuller, harder sound to tracks that skew closer to folk on recordings. This blend of folk and rock—and the questionably sober swaying of the audience—made the show feel like it was straight from the 70’s. The only real disruption to this was people whipping out their phones to record some of the more exciting moments, like Lenker’s epic guitar solo on “Simulation Swarm” towards the end of the set. I personally wish I recorded “Shoulders,” another Two Hands highlight, just for the whiny way Lenker coos, “and the blood of the man/who’s killing our mother with his hands/is in me, it’s in me.”
While Big Thief took the stage in almost a passive way, with a less-than-desperate attempt to seem nonchalance, Lenker certainly proved she was a powerhouse through her voice and guitar. Though guitarist and backing vocalist Buck Meek (Lenker’s ex-husband), bassist Max Oleartchik, and drummer James Krivchenia—who was particularly engaged with every track—all contributed to the band’s full tone, Lenker’s talent soared above all. Being the band’s primary songwriter, it is only fitting that she deeply feels her lyrics, but she pitches them out so relentlessly and achingly it’s hard not to watch in awe. Her talent on the guitar is impressive even to those without much understanding of the technical difficulties she so effortlessly transcends- particularly on the minutes long solo she used to launch the band into “Shark Smile”. Even stripped down, like when performing the unreleased song “Sadness is a Gift” during the encore, Lenker proves her voice is often its best when reserved and paired with her dreamy, soothing lyrics and acoustic guitar. She remained solo on the lead into “Spud Infinity,” a fan favorite from DNWMIBIY, until the band—including her brother who came out to play jaw harp for just that song—kicked in and finished the show strong. Somehow, it was even better than the recording and cemented that their ability to enrich their catalog when performing it live makes for a show that’s both impressive and rewarding.