By Lily Turner, Second Year Geography
It might not have happened in Bristol, but this gig was impossible not to write about.
Having failed to get tickets for Big Thief on Bristol soil, I found myself in Shepherd’s Bush Empire to get a dose of indie-rock. The New York based group were threaded together by coincidences and grassroot progression with a sound crafted by personal narratives which find power in vulnerability. This was their first tour post lockdown and their final show in west London since releasing their fifth album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. The stage was lit in blue and yellow with a sign that read ‘World wants peace’ to stand in solidarity with Ukraine, immediately making the show feel like a safe space.
The tone of the concert was set up KMRU, who created a cleansing atmosphere through ambient soundscapes which drew on environmental and sonic effects. Big Thief introduced the Berlin-based artist and requested the audience to be silent while KMRU performed to allow a meditative space to be created. Not a single word was spoken by Kamaru throughout the entirety of his set which initially made him feel distant and like we were intruding. Minutes into the set you could feel KMRU communicating through his art. Though the set was visually unappealing, closing your eyes was the key to being immersed in the continuous auditory sensations.
Big Thief sat on the side of the stage, watching him perform - curious and inspired by the healing powers of his music. KMRU felt more like a self-gift for the group with some crowd members reluctant to engage with his electronic and hazy sound.
The band kicked into their set with ‘Not’ and ‘Masterpiece’, causing the crowd to erupt with an energetic glow. Lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker sang with her whole body while shredding the guitar with quirky riffs. This physicality shone through the band with the backing guitarist and vocalist, Buck Meek, dancing theatrically and James Krivchenia hovering intimately over his drums ready to crash down on them at any moment.
The tunes which followed created a whirlpool of emotion, touching on nature, society’s contempt towards homelessness, domestic violence, and love. Two unreleased songs ‘Happy with you’ and ‘Oldest’ were played, fans licking their lips with the prospect of more new music.
Around halfway through the set, Lenker played acoustic songs which felt fragile and intimate. She waited for the audience to go silent, allowing the whirling of the air-con to be heard, before indulging us in her slower acoustic love-sick tunes- “Orange is the colour of my love/ Fragile orange wind in the garden”. Her engine of a band preceded to jump in behind her in full force, adding volume to the songs which compliment her poetical and visual lyricism.
Superficially, the band looks like a bunch of misfits with no collective identity. Buck Meek looked dapper and James Bond-esque in his suit, Krivchenia looked bland in all black but boldened by his neon orange fisherman beanie, bassist Max Oleartchik appeared informal in a ripped t-shirt and pink braids, and Lenker wore cowboy boots, nodding towards her Indiana origins. This bizarre combination was mirrored by the diverse make-up of the crowd. Young families, post-indie teens, middle-aged couples, and alternative young people were among the audience. Nevertheless, the indie-folk band and the audience were all unified by Big Thief’s beautiful tunes.
‘Paul’ was the penultimate tune, which created a wave of euphoria through the crowd as a shared fan favourite. The tune alludes to toxic love and creating distance in a relationship that you know won’t last. Before the encore a candle was lit, leaving a flickering soft glow before the band culminated the set with ‘Change’. This tune is about being fearless, embracing growth and what makes us human- “Change, like the sky/ Like the leaves, like a butterfly”. It feels like they were leaving us with a piece of sentimental wisdom before they blew out the candle and scattered off stage. I’d hoped that they would play ‘Mythological Beauty’ as this tune introduced me to the band but disappointingly it didn’t feature on any of their setlists.
Big Thief are a statement band, masters of folk-infused indie-rock. They engineer boisterous and novel sounds, drawing on nature and heart-felt melodies which leave you feeling both energised and pinched by retrospective beauty.
Featured image: Lily Turner
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