Big Thief With Jolie Holland At The Bootleg Theater, Friday May 3rd 2019
Big Thief was playing two shows this week, both sold out, and I managed to see them at the most intimate place of the two, the Bootleg theater. The Brooklyn indie band has a new album ‘U.F.O.F’, that they just released a few days ago on 4AD, the same week that this other NYC band. But if Vampire Weekend and their ‘Father of the Bride’ will take over the Hollywood Bowl this fall. Big Thief is not there yet. And I could be wrong but I don’t see them wanting to be there ever, their approach stays minimalist and super intimate, and if they keep their atmosphere at a hushed level it’s to let Adrianne Lenker’s poignant and melodious whisper unleash an impressive torrent of emotions.
Jolie Holland opened the show with her smoky sexy voice and her series of dark Americana ballads. Only accompanied by a musician on guitar or accordion box, she was giving me vibes of some ancient deep-South folk mixed with atmospheric rock distortion and even a violin for a song. Her sultry voice could have been the best part of the set, she sounded like a breezier and jazzier version of Lucinda Williams, while her rootsy slow-sprawling songs had a widescreen vision of lonely highways and the soul searching of heartbreaking stories.
Everything about this night did sound soft and subtle, but attending a Big Thief concert can be a strange experience, with no prepared setlist in view, and a sort of go-with-the-flow mood, while watching a band pick and choose the songs they want to play. There were even long silences to let Adrianne tune her guitar, some awkward moments and false starts, but none of these imperfections made the crowd complain even a bit. Everyone looked fascinated by the organic process, and for a Hollywood crowd so used to shows over-rehearsed to a stereotyped perfection, everyone seemed to be fully enjoying the unexpected, captivated by the beauty of their chaotic and delicate poetry.
Adrianne Lenker is surely the opposite of a frontwoman, she is not even standing in the front but rather in the shadow, on the side of the stage, and if she sings with a rare intensity and an incomparable voice, there is no commanding of the stage, no star attitude (despite the increasing fan following) and the rest of the band certainly avoid weird stage antics or gimmicks. These days, Adrianne has cut her hair very short and her smile reveals a missing front tooth, that she lost it in a bike accident. But she doesn’t seem to care, or she might even think it’s not a ‘bad’ thing, as missing a tooth could be a permanent reminder of things we lose in life, a reminder of the wear of the body, the passage of time that she evokes so often in her songs. She is the type to wear it with pride, she is the type to bring more importance to symbols than appearance.
She started the show almost alone with her finger picking and her soothing voice delicately singing some poignant lullaby, which did immediately sound strangely familiar, although I have no idea which song it was. ‘Real Love’ off their 2016 ‘Masterpiece’ followed, waking up the other members of the quartet, with Buck Meek on guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass and James Krivchenia on drums suddenly getting very loud toward the song’s ending. For a few songs, Adrianne’s voice was not the center of attraction, and after ‘Not’, another obscure song (to me), which included a rush of distorted guitars lasting as long as a Crazy Horse jam, we finally get to hear the first song of the new album, ‘From’,… which in fact was not totally new since it was also featured on Adrianne’s solo effort ‘Abysskiss’. The looping, jazzy arrangements around her voice, which repeated the song mantra ‘be my man, be my man’ transformed the song into a more atmospheric experience, and it may not have been the only time during the show that I got an almost Radiohead vibe.
The songs from ‘Capacity’ and ‘Masterpiece’ were delivered with simplicity and honesty, while the catchy melody of the song-title was received by the otherwise extremely silent crowd with warmth and delighted murmurs. You could tell emotions were running high among the audience. The new ‘Cattails’ with its folksy tempo sounded like a sudden rural trip in the Appalachian mountains, while the mournful Radiohead-ish melody of ‘Contact’ turned into guitar chaos after Adrianne’s insanely violent shriek. She seemed almost in shock after this one and told us a bit about playing these new songs, ‘This is scary, but this is just the beginning’, probably thinking about the long tour they have just started.
After what seemed to be a long moment of silence and inside conversations, the show jump-started again, but one false start and Adrianne changed her mind, ‘I don’t think I want to play this song’, and we got an obscure one (‘Forgotten Eyes’) and unknown cut, then the vulnerability of ‘Magic Dealer’. It is as if she were going at the edge of dissonance during her stripped-down vocal solos, while never singing out of tune, and the most intimate songs like ‘Orange’ or ‘Terminal Paradise’ immersed the crowd into an almost spiritual experience, with melodies that often seemed to be several hundred years old.
It was one of the quietest shows I had attended for a long time, besides a few episodes of guitar distortions, moments of loudness and pure ecstatic joy like the dancing euphoria unleashed by ‘Shark Smile’. During the entire show, the band had played in front of a giant bouquet of flowers, a possible metaphor for the cosmic connection with nature found in the songs’ lyrics. They decided to give away all the flowers to the audience before the last song, a nice gesture, which made the show even more intimate and heartfelt, especially just before listening to the amazingly emotional ‘Mary’. This could be their most impressive tune, a melody you have known forever but that you discover each time you hear it, a miracle song and the perfect demonstration that Adrianne Lenker and her band are in direct connection with the timelessness of great art. The details of this connection remain very mysterious of course, but there is obviously something unusual happening when you attend a Big Thief show, the silence makes it close to a religious experience, but saying this would be an easy cliché, I see Adrianne like a down-to-earth mystic, who can connect with the unknown the minute after she has passed these fragrant flowers around.
Halo Light (Buck Meek cover)