“This room is wild,” Adrianne Lenker said Monday night from her perch at stage left. “I feel like I’m in a barn, but, like, on another planet.” The room in question was the Athenaeum Theatre, an old Masonic Temple in downtown Columbus best known as a venue for weddings and other such classy gatherings. Last year it began hosting the occasional indie-rock show, bringing voices fresh (Mitski, Jay Som, Cigarettes After Sex, Screaming Females) and classic (Built To Spill, the Breeders, Sleep, Godspeed You! Black Emperor) to a pleasingly bizarre performance space that splits the difference between an arena and a high school auditorium.
On this November night, as the first real snowfall of the season blanketed the city, the Athenaeum welcomed Big Thief. This was the last proper show of a year that saw the quartet ascend to indie-rock superstardom. By now the story has become rote: Back in May, Big Thief released their third album, U.F.O.F.. A collection of eerie spectral folk songs recorded in the forest of Washington state, it presented four musicians who’d tapped into a rare power and synchronicity. They followed it in October with Two Hands, an album they cut just days later in the Texas desert, which traded its predecessor’s layered, meticulous beauty for raw live takes.
Big Thief already boasted an impressive catalog and a fervent fan base — there’s not a bad album to their name, and Lenker’s 2018 solo LP abysskiss was stunning in its own right — but 2019 is when their reputation as one of their genre’s leading lights crystallized. In fact, such a loud, unanimous hype storm swirled up around them that backlash was inevitable. The skepticism is reasonable. I’ve always been a Big Thief agnostic, enjoying their music but not usually experiencing rhapsody through it. U.F.O.F. was pretty, but my brain must not be tuned to its spiritual frequency or something. The ragged glory of Two Hands was more to my liking, but even that one tends to drift into the background between highlights. Based only on their recorded output, I might have to conclude Big Thief have become overrated.
Seeing them live changed my perspective. At the National’s Homecoming festival in Cincinnati last spring, as they do pretty much every time they perform live, Big Thief played up the rock elements in their sound. “Adrianne Lenker was on her guitar hero shit,” I wrote at the time, “ripping twisted solos worthy of Jack White. Her voice, too, was a beacon. Lenker and her bandmates converged country, indie rock, folk, and classic rock into this shapeshifting entity all their own. They sounded strong and delicate in equal measure — a reminder of how much a band can accomplish within the standard confines of two guitars, bass, and drums.”
This perception was reinforced when Big Thief went on Colbert this fall and performed Two Hands highlight “Not” — their best song to date and a candidate for 2019’s finest track — with an intensity best described as “feral.” Clearly, something special was happening between Lenker, her fellow guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, and drummer James Krivchenia, a chemistry that becomes explosive on stage. Even if you don’t connect with their records, their shows are must-see events. Fortunately for me, Krivchenia’s grandmother lives in the area and recently requested Big Thief come through, which led to the band tacking this Columbus gig on the end of their tour schedule. Granny was among the enthusiastic throng in attendance last night. “This band wouldn’t exist without her,” Lenker quipped.
They eased into the evening with a pair of gentle album openers, “Pretty Things” and “Rock And Sing.” Things got properly rolling with “Shoulders,” one of those emphatically swaying Big Thief specialties at the intersection of rock, folk, and pop. Lenker’s lyrics often take a scalpel to the human soul, and few cut me open like that one, with its chilling chorus: “And the blood of the man/ Who killed my mother with his hands/ Is in me, it’s in me, in my veins!” From there they kept on rocking: a vibrantly bouncy “Shark Smile,” a mammoth “Forgotten Eyes,” a reading of “Not” that recaptured the combustible fury of that Colbert performance.
As the night wore on, endearing quirks began to emerge, be it the way Krivchenia hunches over his drums with the gnarled posture of a 100-year-old man playing Whack-A-Mole or the playful hippie energy with which Oleartchik does everything, including shaking jingle bells during a set-closing “Cattails” that brimmed with life. What stood out most was Meek’s distinct personal motion; when he and his bandmates are locked in, his whole body moves with a weird elastic grace that reminds me of Thom Yorke busting a move. This affect was especially pleasing with Meek wrapped up in a puffy red winter coat most of the night. And despite lining up at the flank of the stage, Lenker was the tender presence at the heart of the band, breathing warmth and gravitas into every song.
I still thought some of the quieter numbers were a good chance to check my fantasy football score, but near the end the band reasserted themselves, first with a gorgeously spindly “Mythological Beauty” and then with U.F.O.F.‘s subtly magnificent opening track. “Contact” is soft but haunted by creeping tension, an acoustic ballad that drops out into electric Crazy Horse theatrics at the end. On record, Big Thief kept the song’s grand finale subdued, but at their concerts they let it rip, as if uncaging a monstrous fuzzed-out beast to wreck everything within earshot. That climactic riff is pure classic rock, but its effect was comparable to a dubstep drop. Witnessing them tear into it was my favorite moment of the night.
Big Thief played both “Not” and “Contact” at Homecoming last year, when both songs were still more than a year from being released. I didn’t realize they were new songs at the time, but their cataclysmic power is what turned me on to the band. Now, just a few months after release, they hit like classics. Others songs met a similar reception last night. Big Thief may be the flavor of the month, but in person they more than live up to the hype. They could disappear now and become mythic figures like Neutral Milk Hotel, or they could keep going indefinitely and become something like Wilco or Radiohead — or maybe, given my similar hot-and-cold feelings toward them, Pearl Jam — undeniable greats whose fans show up knowing they’re going to get a unique setlist every time out, wondering which delights their heroes will unearth this time around. The zeitgeist will surely pass them by, but the passion they incite within listeners, and within each other, suggests they will always command an audience this worshipful.
Lenker recently posted a video to Big Thief’s Twitter explaining that Big Thief don’t do encores unless their hearts are in it. On their final night of tour, with a long, snowy drive to New York awaiting them, it felt right. To roaring applause, Lenker welcomed opening act Palehound plus Big Thief’s full touring crew to the stage, and the lot of them embarked on a joyous run through the title track from their 2016 debut Masterpiece. The sight of them all up there jangling together in celebration was a fitting finale for Big Thief’s triumphant year. Whether 2019 turns out to be their peak or they keep this up for decades to come, their legend has already been sealed.
“Rock And Sing”
“Masterpiece” (with Palehound)