Live Review: Big Thief @ The Anthem — 4/21/22

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Adrianne Lenker leads Big Thief in a performance at The Anthem on April 21, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)

How do the very best musicians keep their creative focus amid skyrocketing popularity and success? Aiming to reduce external noise and interruption might very well help a band or a group preserve and even hone its identity in the same direction and with a similar rationale that inspired the endeavor to begin with.

Big Thief, the beloved and inexplicably bewitching indie rock group out of Brooklyn, has somehow adhered to what appears to be a fundamental set of guiding principles while managing meteoric growth since its inception less than seven years ago.

At a highly anticipated appearance at The Anthem in DC recently, Big Thief was able to shrink the ultramodern venue, effectively diffusing any potential distraction presented by its large size and cutting through its deep space to reach the audience clear and to emotional effect.

On April 21, The Anthem visit was part of a tour promoting its acclaimed early 2022 studio release, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, an ambitious jaunt that will see the group trek east to west across the country through the month of May before heading to Europe for the entirety of June and into July in a rescheduled and overdue trip overseas.

Stream Big Thief’s 2022 studio album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, via Spotify:

Presenting an illusory set spanning the young but rich and fascinating Big Thief catalogue, this band proved it’s the fortuitous result of an unbreakable bond between its four members, who have been making music together since this lineup solidified less than a year into its life.

Piloted by the once-in-a-generation songwriting phenomenon Adrianne Lenker, who handles lead vocals and plays guitar, Big Thief began the evening with “Change,” using this elegantly stark standout from the newest album to set a pensive tone on the night.

Wearing an outfit of all black, with her hair buzzed short and dyed blonde a few weeks back, the unassuming and reserved Adrianne commanded attention with her presence alone even before her words would grab any soul within earshot. And of all the striking words in the show’s opening track, one particular chorus section stood out in DC:

“Would you stare forever at the sun / Never watch the moon rising? / Would you walk forever in the light / To never learn the secret of the quiet night?”

A setup as unadorned as its cast of characters, the arrangement was plain — just a curtain in the distance behind them and a basic set of stage lights above, the colors revolving slowly, their movement controlled with a careful hand.

Stage right and opposite Adriane, there was Buck Meek — the mesmerizing and fashionable guitarist who, for as soft-spoken as he might be, found a remarkable sound through what looks like an unconventional playing style. The set’s early songs, a couple of tender selections, saw how his form so flawlessly complements Adrianne’s approach on the mic and her guitar. His volume, whether calm or intense, and even more so his unmistakable texture distinguished any song.

James Krivchenia, a seasoned and steadying captain of this thought-provoking vehicle, had a trail-runner’s cap pulled down on his brow, his long frame just slightly hunched over his simple drum kit. An experienced sound engineer and producer, you could still see his eyes at the right angles. Certainly becoming a trademark of a Big Thief performance, his pupils were ablaze, even bordering on deranged, in his fixation both on his equipment and in coordinating the timing with his mates. He’d draw the attention of Lenker through the night, and she’d stand facing him and let loose on her electric guitar as he flashed wild, sinister grins back at her for some of the best moments of the night.

Max Oleartchik, perhaps the most outright playful of the bunch, injected just as much character to the music as anyone at The Anthem in utilizing both the upright and electric basses. Max would reposition his scarf throughout the performance, and his notes would prove key in projecting Big Thief’s sound into the large room. His shit-eating smirk revealed the good time being had by this tight-knit posse, but also spoke to crew of pioneering professionals who’ve developed an affinity for the deep, productive focus as a unit.

Watch the newly released video for Big Thief’s “Red Moon” via the band’s official YouTube channel:

And given the band’s backstory, the members have earned the right to be so concentrated within themselves. As most followers of the band know, Adrianne and Buck met by chance years ago and eventually got married — young — in the midst of forging their own successful solo careers and as Big Thief began to blossom.

In a heartrending turn of events, they would divorce in 2018 — walking arm-in-arm into a courtroom to separate, as friends. The fact that they went through such a difficult scenario with such dignity and respect for one another only makes the music Big Thief has offered since that time more majestic and enduring, and that is supported by the group’s Grammy’s nominations in both 2020 and 2021.

But, still, this unpredictable period has been challenging for this and all artists, regardless of popularity. Rather than let the pandemic pull the band apart, Big Thief found ways to grow closer: the group isolated in the woods of Vermont together in 2020 and then ventured to various random locations, where it recorded the music that would become their latest release.

Showcasing the inspiring relationship between Lenker and Meek, the track “12,2000 Lines” manifested at The Anthem in the relaxing fashion as is heard on the studio recording, with Buck joining Adrianne to conjure the warm, tender co-harmony in this song’s refrain.

Two talented song crafters and each delicate, abating singers in their own right, Adrianne and Buck both made local appearances in the fall — Meek at Jammin’ Java, Lenker a week later at Lincoln Theater. Their voices would meld regularly at The Anthem, including for a soothing rendition of “Certainty,” which upon its release last year became one of Big Thief’s most popular tracks of late with its poignant, unforgettable chorus:

“My certainty is wild, weaving / For you, I am a child, believing / You lay beside me sleeping on a plane / In the future.”

Stream Big Thief Live at The Bunker Studio, released in 2021, via Spotify:

The set at The Anthem delivered some favorites, including “Cattails” from 2019’s U.F.O.F. and an edgy, resounding take on “Masterpiece,” the title track from the 2016 studio premiere, with Adrianne and Buck huddling on the stage to elevate their guitar sounds from the gentler opening songs to tense and heightened frenzies in exploring some of the darker, more provocative Big Thief selections.

“Shoulders” from Two Hands — the second album the band released in 2019 — combined two lonely guitar motifs that skipped together before Adrianne floated her voice into the mix. It would swell and ascend as the narrative intensified, giving way to a powerful, rolling jam and her singing morphed to an exonerating wail that left the room in awe.

After a razor-sharp classic in “Shark Smile,” DC ticketholders were treated to what’s believed to be a new Big Thief song, “Forgiver,” and it unfolded as an ambient, otherworldly journey that trailed to almost absolute silence before the audience burst into cheers.

“Simulation Swarm,” another single from Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, was a spiraling, contemplative groove that amplified and ingeniously segued into a lush blend of sound, some of it discordant, but authentic to this band and to this band only.

Down the backstretch, the set featured more from the new album before two additional cuts from Two Hands ensured this night would be a memorable one with a ringing version of “Forgotten Eyes” and then an epic “Not” that saw Adrianne yank her mind-bending solo while flopped down on her knees at the edge of the stage.

After closing the set with the quixotic title track from Big Thief’s 2022 record, the group returned to the stage but Adrianne would perform by herself what she referred to as a new song, titled “Sadness as a Gift.” And though she might not have delivered the unreleased lyrics as perfectly as she wanted — she briefly interrupted herself with a giggle, saying she might have been messing it up — the crowd was collectively grateful to hear it in the first place.

In a warm, celebratory ending, Adrianne welcomed her brother, Noah, to the stage for what would be a restorative, triumphant presentation of “Spud Infinity,” a track made uncommon and undeniable by the presence of the jaw harp — played by her sibling. This hilarious and crafty piece, with its backwoods hoedown vibe, had everyone in the place moving and in high spirits, and it helped this band bid farewell to the biggest venue its played in this city.

Like a family of gypsy musicians, the members of Big Thief have seemingly used their own nomadic route to strengthen the fabric of the group during crucial days. Rather than be slowed or even caught up by any of the buzz that comes with fame, the group has conversely become more absorbing to its audience, stripping away any nonsense and presenting its songs in convincing and meticulous fashion.

If Big Thief’s stop last week in Washington DC is any indication, this is a band that shows promise not just with its presentation but in how it’s wisely navigating external forces to stay the course as one of today’s most thoughtful and stimulating musical acts.

Setlist

Change
12,000 Lines
Certainty
Cattails
Masterpiece
Shoulders
Shark Smile
Forgiver
Blurred View
Simulation Swarm
Flower of Blood
Forgotten Eyes
Not
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
Sadness as a Gift (encore, Adrianne solo)
Spud Infinity (encore, featuring Noah Lenker, Adrianne’s brother)

Here are images of Big Thief along with the evening’s opening act, Kara-Lis Coverdale, performing at The Anthem in Washington DC on April 21, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.

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Kara-Lis Coverdale

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