The album covers for Big Thief’s two albums released last year depict the Brooklyn-based four-piece respectively huddled together outside (on ‘U.F.O.F.’) and with their faces squeezed into frame (on ‘Two Hands’). Intimacy is at the very core of the group’s folk-rock; there’s a tactile energy in both lead vocalist and guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s lyrics and the music that accompanies them. It’s no mean feat to convey that in a 5000 capacity venue like London’s Apollo in Hammersmith, but tonight Big Thief prove themselves more than up to the task.
‘Orange’, the first of many songs aired from ‘U.F.O.F.’, sees Lenker strum solo as her bandmates watch her sing about a lover’s imagined passing. “Fragile is that I mourn her death / As our limbs are twisting in the bedroom,” she croons. Lenker is as unflinching a presence on stage as she is in the studio.
‘Masterpiece’, the burst of noise that follows, visibly jolts the crowd and the rest of the band into action. Big Thief play more to each other than directly to the audience, with guitarist Buck Meek facing Lenker and convulsing strangely along with their guitar interplay. Fans are invited to be voyeurs of their jam session. Drummer James Krivchenia jerks his neck like no one’s watching, while bassist Max Oleartchik meanders at the back of the group’s square formation. The no-frills stage design focuses attention on the musicians, whose stage presence is hypnotic.
“This is just so special,” Lenker later tells the crowd in a rare moment of between-song chatter. Earlier, she pointed out that the show is the biggest they’ve played.
“It’s really amazing to have gatherings around music, around frequencies, ” she says. The word “frequencies” is adept; Big Thief certainly play instinctively, as if vibing off their fans and one another’s impulses. ‘Not’, which appeared on ‘Two Hands’, visibly unites the audience: heads thud to the tune’s incessant beat, before Lenker reads the room and erupts into a visceral, improvised guitar solo. Big Thief’s gripping, grungy side is well-realised live. Meek amplifies their sound by shaking his guitar for waves of distorted feedback, while Lenker detunes her chords.
Towards the end of the set, though, the band revive their rootsier backbone with ‘Forgotten Eyes’. Yet it’s alt-country stomper ‘Cattails’, rich with drone pedal notes and open-tuned twangs, that sees Big Thief most enthralled in a dusty wig-out – and us too. The intimacy is palpable.
Big Thief played:
‘Time Escaping’ (new song)
‘Two Rivers’ (new song)
‘Rock and Sing’