Concert Review: Big Thief

Despite a brief Friday the 13th bad omen, both opening act Tucker Zimmerman and Big Thief put on performances that once again shows music’s ability to emotionally unite people.

I had forgotten it was Friday the 13th until an eerie, high-pitched whine pierced through Big Thief’s opening song. It seemed as though bassist Max Oleartchik had made a similar realization as he circled the stage with a bundle of burning sage. While the sound technicians worked on the speakers, the band began harmonizing their instruments to the ringing, layering guitar vibratos to create a calming lo-fi type of melody. Their quick improvisation and ability to draw energy from each other was the first hint of the band’s connection and love for music that became increasingly clear through the rest of the concert. Despite the early malfunctions, Big Thief put on a show that truly felt like listening to live music rather than a practiced performance.

Before the sound system debacle, Big Thief’s opener, Tucker Zimmerman, was able to play his entire acoustic set. As the house lights dimmed, two band members helped walk Zimmerman, an 81-year-old singer-songwriter from Belgium, onto stage. Zimmerman sat on a chair center stage and began strumming his guitar to a slow romantic folk tune. He started with a song dedicated to his wife, immediately creating an intimate setting for his performance. The crowd stilled to take in Zimmerman’s straightforward but sweet sentiment of the strength of his aging love. I wondered if it was easy to write this song about her; to condense such vast emotions into four minutes. I’ve always wanted to write songs with easy guitar melodies, but often end up overthinking lyrics and become discouraged before I even start. Listening to Zimmerman reminded me that a collection of small observations can come together to form immersive lyrics that resonate with a crowd.

Zimmerman’s imprecise strumming and fingerstyle picking made his performance seem casual, allowing me to see him as a person who loves music rather than an established musician. For Zimmerman’s song “Backdoor Troubadour,” two members of Big Thief picked up their acoustic instruments and joined onstage. The trio played two songs together while the rest of the band and other backstage crew danced around during the songs’ instrumental interludes. The whole crowd could feel their joy. Then, Zimmerman welcomed the entire band to accompany him for his last song, “The Season.” He passed his guitar to Big Thief’s lead singer Adrianne Lenker and picked up his harmonica and a small hand shaker. Lenker and Zimmerman’s dreamy vocal harmony made me truly believe their chorus: “It’s the season when all the dreams of your dreams come true.” I nearly cried. Typically, openers feel separate from the main act, but Zimmerman and Big Thief felt like one big family with a clear mutual admiration. Overall, Tucker Zimmerman’s opening act fostered a sense of community and gratitude that set the tone for Big Thief’s performance.

Once Big Thief took the stage again, I was instantly hypnotized by their musical prowess and folk rock arrangements. The band played music from all five of their albums, beginning with quieter songs and progressing into the heavier rock sound featured on their newer albums. Early in the set, lead singer Adrianne Lenker introduced two unreleased projects. She spoke softly about experiencing heartbreaks, which were not always necessarily romantic, and her journey to understanding the prevalence of heartbreak in life. She paused frequently during her monologue, holding back tears and gripping the body of her guitar for support. I always appreciate learning about musicians’ thought processes and their approach to creating art; one of the best aspects of making art is that there is no single way to do it. Lenker’s poetic candor made me want to give everyone a hug. Between the two unreleased tracks, “Sadness as a Gift” struck me most, and was perhaps my favorite song on their setlist. For the song, drummer James Krivchenia set aside his drumsticks for a two hand shakers, making for an airy melody that felt like a release of negative energy. I love when artists trust the crowd with unreleased music, like exchanging something sacred. It reminds me that artists are always creating, and that everyone is always moving forward, even while celebrating the past.

Throughout the performance, Lenker would tap and move her guitar to manipulate its tones, giving a more messy sound that felt cathartic. Most of Big Thief’s songs have an instrumental outro when the song would fade out one instrument at a time. Oftentimes, the crowd would applaud even as Lenker continued to play her guitar, drowning out the slow progression to the song’s end. Still, I loved how the band created space for each instrument to shine, either through the introduction of each instrument at the beginning or a slow fade out at the end. Even the bouncy frog-like noise featured in “Spud Infinity” was given its own spotlight when Big Thief welcomed Lenker’s brother to play the jaw harp, extending their onstage family. The concert in total felt like an ode to the power of instruments, drawing attention to the importance of parts of a whole.

I left the Big Thief concert feeling warm in my soul and excited about life. The contrast between Lenker’s meditative voice and the band’s rock sound provided a sense of peace while simultaneously reenergizing me to return to the world.

Grade: A-
Venue: North Park Observatory

Image courtesy of NPR

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