Big Thief  

On The Coldest Night Of The Year

Words: Georgia Truman
February 13, 2023

As temperatures across the East Coast plunged below zero during the first weekend of February, I went searching for warmth.  

I took a train from Providence to New Haven to see Big Thief, an indie folk-rock band fronted by singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenker, that has received a fair amount of adoration and critical acclaim since its formation in 2015. Big Thief’s sound has evolved over the years, the low-tech rock of their debut 2016 album Masterpiece giving way to new releases that inch towards folk, Capacity in 2017 and U.F.O.F. in 2019. Their latest 2022 album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You continues to blur lines and cross boundaries, perhaps pushing past folk and crossing over into country.

Dragon New Warm Mountain clearly communicates the ethos of the band: it is at once gentle, haunted, and twangy. The album spans twenty songs and was recorded in four locations:  Topanga Canyon, California, upstate New York, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, and the Colorado mountains. There is a distinct nomadic quality to the album that permeates, in some way or another, nearly all of Big Thief’s work. Their discography is littered with songs referencing being on the road, in the car, traveling from one place to another. It is this quality, even more than the musical arrangement, that is the most consistently folk about their music, in line with the long tradition of folk singers who sang about wandering across America. This is perhaps due to the origins of frontwoman Lenker, who was born into a cult in Indiana but lived in many places across the Midwest following her family’s departure from the cult when she was four years old.

Though the band formed in Brooklyn, the musicians hail from all different places. Guitarist Buck Meek was raised in Texas, bassist Max Oleartchik is from Israel, and drummer James Krivchenia was born in Minnesota. The album, like the band itself, is of many places. Its qualities come not just from the influences of its many origins, but from the fact of having so many origins in the first place. Travel, too, was a key element in the creation of Dragon New Warm Mountain: Lenker drove in a fixed-up van from the studio in New York all the way to Topanga, California for the next recording session.

It was fitting, then, that my friends and I were making the (short) trip to Connecticut for the show. Though the train ride was less than two hours, the cold that hit us the moment we stepped outside gave the trip a dramatic, triumphant quality. The sidewalks were positively apocalyptic, empty except for the occasional brave group scurrying from one doorstep to the next. The wind was ruthless. We ran through the streets to the glowing beacon of College Street Music Hall. Inside, the coat check was at capacity, so we laid our jackets across the balcony seats and went down to the floor.

There was a kindness to the crowd; even those who were eagerly edging towards the base of the stage seemed conscious and mindful. There also seemed to be an informal dress code for the night; few people could be seen wearing colors other than brown, beige, and sage green. Fair isle sweaters and Carhartt logos abounded.

Buck Meek, the guitarist of the band, was the opener. Though his solo career is lesser known than Lenker’s, he has released two solo albums, as well as other releases in collaboration with Lenker (the two were once married and played together before the formation of Big Thief). Meek entered wearing a large orange puffer jacket, which was a common topic of conversation among the audience for the duration of his set. He has a classic voice, like James Taylor, which filled the room along with guitar, drums, and the sweet sound of the pedal steel guitar. Halfway through his set, Lenker walked casually onstage to lively cheers. With a black hoodie pulled over her head, she sang some soft harmonies for Meek before wandering back behind the curtains to more cheers. In all of it, there was a strong desire to be casual. The opening set felt a little like sitting on the couch and watching a jam session in someone’s living room.

At intermission, the excitement was building. Young people with shaggy hair pushed their way to the front and darted their eyes around, expectant. Big Thief entered at long last. The applause rose and fell; then in the momentary silence people began whooping, not at the band but in conversation, calling to each other across the room like birds. Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!

They started with “Ingydar,” a song from one of Lenker's acoustic solo projects, adapted to a concert-style moody rock song. Then the popular “Simulation Swarm” from the new album. There was an intensity to the songs and to Lenker’s nasal, meandering voice, but it dissolved moments later when the bandmates started doing a bit about blackberries. There was a box of them resting on the amp; Lenker picked one up and ate it, remarking “This is the first time I’ve eaten on stage before.” I wondered if perhaps this was the first time anyone had eaten a blackberry onstage. Krivchenia joked that “If you get over a fear onstage, you get a blackberry,” prompting Lenker to eat another one. The audience loved this.

Halfway through “12,000 Lines,” a soft, understated song about being on the road and missing the one you love, the band stopped and the lights came on: someone in the audience needed a medic. The whole room waited patiently until someone from the crowd gave the thumbs up, and the band started back up, playing the final verse.

Though serious while performing, Big Thief is playful with the audience. Meek got the set list confused and started playing the intro to “Certainty” before Lenker stopped him and gently redirected him, initiating a banter between the two onstage. They played “Dried Roses,” “Blue Lightning,” and a rich, jaunty version of “Cattails.” Then “Certainty” finally arrived, and the crowd rocked and chanted along loudly to the lines “Maybe I love you is a river so high, Maybe I love you is a river so low.”

The stage lights went red as they began to play an unreleased song, currently called “Vampire Empire,” that has become popular since fans began posting tour videos of it on TikTok. It was a total departure from the rest of the set, the lyrics much more direct and unambiguous than their usual poetic abstractions. Lenker chanted, “I wanted to see you naked, I wanted to hear you scream…I wanted to be your woman, I wanted to be your man,” before screaming into the microphone at the end of the song.

They played two more unreleased songs. The instrumental breaks were long and hypnotic, captivating the audience and making them lose track of time. By the time they played “Forgotten Eyes,” the bitter cold outside had been long forgotten.“Not” arrived with another masterful guitar solo and the audience fell into a deep groove. In another playful skit, Lenker called her brother Noah onstage to  play the jew harp, a small mouthpiece instrument which makes a soft buzzing and boinging sound. He accompanied the band on “Spud Infinity”, a jaunty song from the new album that gets everybody dancing. Lenker made a pun about how glad she was to be in Connecticut, followed by “shy in nature, I am.” She inched up to the audience’s outstretched hands slowly as if they were a pond, or a dog. I wondered how she truly felt about playing in Connecticut and how much it differed from playing in any other state.

They played one more unreleased song and walked off. Cheers ensued. They came back out and began to play again and the crowd exploded: it was “Masterpiece,” the title track from their debut album. At the end of it, Lenker thanked the house, the opener, and her dog. She then thanked the audience for venturing out in the cold, saying it was probably the warmest room on the whole East Coast. “I just really can’t believe this,” she murmured. “It feels like a dream.” They began playing the last song. It was only guitar; the crowd went almost completely silent. They played “Change,” and for the first time I heard the guy next to me quietly and simply singing along. The song faded out and my friends and I exchanged wild stares and stood still in awe. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. No one wanted to go back out into the cold, yet for both the audience and the band, the show was only one stop along the line. We were all only travelers passing through. Big Thief was headed to Philadelphia, and I was getting on a train back to Providence in the morning. Though fleeting, moments of joy and communion, like the concert, are ultimately what define our lives amidst the eternal forward march of time.

Big Thief tours frequently, and thus is constantly traveling from one city to the next, another way in which they are fundamentally nomadic. This is perhaps another reason why they are able to embrace the power of place in their music: their lives are landmarked by places. It is difficult to recognize the significance or influence of a place until leaving it; only by going someplace else can you have anything to compare it to. It is the traveling, and perhaps even the act of leaving, that opens the door to meaning.

My second time seeing Big Thief and my third time seeing Adrienne Lenker in concert did not disappoint. Big Thief has a specific presence and command over the crowd that creates a completely unique concert experience defined by kindness, wonder, and community. In the same way that their music simultaneously defines and is defined by place, the warmth and beauty of the music that night was defined by the winter weather that encased it.






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