by Sam Cox, Digital Music Editor
America’s most prolific troubadours visit Cardiff’s Great Hall, turning the 1,600-capacity venue into an intimate space with their raw, cathartic performance and their sense of camaraderie with each other and with their audience.
Big Thief are a band who thrive on defying their indie-folk label. Their most recent record, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, attests to the fact that the band can deftly mould Adrianne Lenker’s songs into delicate clouds of Americana, rural bluegrass wig-outs, glacial trip-hop grooves and swirling indie-pop collages. Tonight, they seem in the mood to apply their rawest, punkiest musical make-up, a side of their sound which seems to emphasise Lenker’s most painful yet cathartic poetry.
The guttural screams and clattering guitar riffs of ‘Contact’ are dialled up to maximum here and the album’s title track gets a heavy make-over so convincing that the hushed version on the studio recording no longer seems to do it justice. By the end of their hour-and-a-bit performance, encore closer ‘Spud Infinity’ seems to aggressively kick rather than jauntily bounce along in its live iteration and even the live jaw harp courtesy of Lenker’s brother Noah sounds a little menacing here. As if Adrianne Lenker’s startlingly intimate lyrics weren’t enough of a clue, here is a band who aren’t afraid of being enthrallingly, gut-wrenchingly direct. Some fan-favourites are left out of the setlist to accommodate this more raw approach, but by this point their back-catalogue is so vast and of such a high quality that no hour-long show could do it justice in its entirety. To be able to drop songs as strong as ‘Mary’, ‘Change’ and ‘Shark Smile’ from their sets so relatively early in their career just attests to the quality of work they’ve been producing since 2016. As if to symbolise the decision to omit some of these gentler songs, a double bass lies unused on stage throughout the set, hinting at how different the night may have been, had another mood taken them.
But as in-your-face as their performance is at times, there is an intimacy at the heart of it that fans have come to expect from a group who have already toured the U.K. twice since the release of their latest album, and whose chemistry seems to only grow stronger as a result of their relentless recording and touring schedule. The four-piece manage to achieve what can often seem lacking in the present age, where musicians can produce entire albums together from behind computer screens, miles apart from one another. That is to say, they feel like a band. Take any one element away from Big Thief, and there is a sense that the whole thing would fall apart. The strength of their live show is bound up not just in the songwriting but in each musician’s idiosyncratic yet complementary style, in their camaraderie, and in their conviction in pulling in the same direction.
This intimacy emanates from the band to the audience. Not only do they take to the stage an hour before their set, mugs of tea in hand, to introduce support act L’Rain, Lenker and co. also take great effort in making sure the crowd are safe and hydrated in the warm, crowded Great Hall, even if that means a couple of false starts for ‘Time Escaping’. The audience, inevitably, returns the favour, listening with bated breath not only to familiar numbers from across the group’s five albums to date, but to the four new songs on offer too. And if the new songs suggest anything, it’s that America’s most prolific group show no sign of slowing down yet.Featured image: Sam Cox
Have a read of our 'Top 100 Songs of 2022' feature, which included Big Thief's 'Red Moon.'