Big Thief Are A Band

Alexa Viscius

Big Thief Are A Band

Alexa Viscius

Big Thief are a band. This is their salient fact, the telepathic and impassioned thrust that has powered eight years and five albums of rustic loft-rock. They might be the only big-flight 2010s indie group where news of, like, the rhythm section being replaced would produce a sizable outcry of “dude… that’s fucked up.”

Yeah, yeah, you’re saying. “Big Thief ride the ‘we’re a band’ thing hard.” That hasn’t been any sort of deep critical insight since… I wanna say, 2018? Certainly no later than that one press photo of them piled together into a bathtub… or giving each other piggyback rides… or biking down Flatbush Avenue on unicycles (I made one of these up). But, nevertheless, it bares restating: Big Thief, intentionally or not, broadcast the fact that “they are a band,” and to this day it feels as though people’s opinions tend to proceed directly from this fact. You can look at our indie era — defined by solo singer-songwriters and auteurs — and feel cynical about this as conscious counter-programing (when your frontperson has the ability to draw pleading, utterly sincere yearn out of words like “warbling” and “blood bloom”… well, yeah, that’s some generational oomph for a rhythm section to contend with). You can listen to the tambourine parts and lyrics about potatoes and roll your eyes at the close-knit unity pose as a sort of granola-millennial endpoint. Or you can believe in it, and I certainly do. Maybe these are just four uniquely sensitive artists — as attuned to the intensity of a mellow Saturday afternoon in the sun as they are emotional devastation and heartbreak. Despite a seeming inability to consult one another on dress code, this is a band that subordinates everything to the unguided, hive-mind whims of its psychic folkie interplay.

My assumption had been that most Big Thief fans put their trust in that judgment, or at least give it some necessary room for error. But maybe the roiling tempo of internet fandom in 2023 is simply too resting-fascist to put its faith in a band that reworks its setlist each night and churns its tightest pop structures into sprawling noise-feedback jams! All I can say for certain is that, before headlining Pitchfork Music Festival set Saturday night (they previously played the Chicago event in 2021), the band’s most recent social media post addressed fans grousing over the just-released studio version of live favorite “Vampire Empire.”

The chief comparison appears to be their recording for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert earlier this year. Complaints seem to concern the condensed runtime, some funky drum mixing, and a missing flute. “We weren’t gonna go into the studio and try to replicate what we played on Colbert… plus there’s no way it would’ve been the same, because songs are vessels for the expressions of our present selves,” the band wrote, “and not highly manicured concoctions polished to be consumed based on demand.” It’s surprising they even acknowledged the criticism. Maybe some deep part of their artistry got rattled. The part of Big Thief that’s outer-conscious, the part that can’t be controlled — even by Adrianne Lenker. The part of Big Thief that is inextricably a band.

But I’m standing there watching Buck Meek (earlier in the day he announced on the DoorDash interview stage that he was going by Buckley from now on, but may have been joking) doing these goofy little “no, no” head shakes as a wailing Lenker reverse engineers the ground-shaking, head-fucking rush of pure love from all the things that it isn’t (“not the crowd winning,” “not the planet spinning,” etc, you know the tune) and I really do think to nobody is gonna get that if the band doesn’t have room to fuck around. That it’s all “a little bit magic,” even when it doesn’t work or isn’t quite finished. And that’s what I think before Lenker busts out some skronk guitar that would make Metal Machine Music-era Lou Reed go “ayyyyyyyy.” (Also featured last night: a herky-jerk avant-solo from her on “Simulation Swarm” that would make Gregg Ginn go “wooooooo” and an honest to god death growl on “Contact.” I’m not saying Lenker could have also headlined the hardcore fest trollishly playing literal meters down the block, but… of course that’s what I’m saying.)

Of course, that’s the trade-off to any sort of artistic spontaneity — as a Saturday night performance dotted by workshop-y jaunts through new material, sheepish stage patter, and a couple long pauses waiting for distraction to pass made clear. You probably shouldn’t expect normal, headliner-polish from it. For an ‘era defining’ sorta band, Big Thief are really not ones to flex extra-musical razzle dazzle or mystique (I’m assuming at my own peril that your definition of “extra-musical razzle dazzle” does not encompass “perpetually topless bassist Max Oleartchik,” though it seems important to note that this evening he and drummer James Krivchenia were carried on and off stage with a good deal of goonish aplomb). They enter without a note of pre-recorded sonic lead-on, play the big songs on their setlist at seemingly random intervals, and scrunch together with all their gear and perform in a straight line like they’re characters in A Mighty Wind or something.

Alexa Viscius

In fact, when they first came on, the foursome stood silent and smiling on stage for several minutes of audible audience confusion. Gradually, it became clear that they were waiting for Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul to finish at the distant Blue Stage, but also didn’t want to linger hidden in the wings, keeping audiences waiting past the 8:30 start time. Also, I was sorta high, so I may be wrong about this, but I am near positive they performed their entire set last night under stage lights set unchangingly at stark-white standard. You know, for that “supermarket at 2 PM” fluorescent vibe.

And playfully-shambolic-yet-also-kinda-scarily-impassioned is a cool fucking vibe to close-off an evening on a field with thousands of people. (Coming on after a lush, bombastic, and intensely-art-directed Weyes Blood set in the chilly rain emphasized this quality). The band emanated bashfulness, humility, and engagement throughout — stopping at one extended point for a fan medical scare and in general unable to carry stoically on through even a single cry of “y’all fucking rock.” When a pie-eyed Lenker hippie-daze murmured to the crowd that “you are so beautiful. you feel really good,” a woman yelled out to ask her to repeat her words so she could take a video! And she did! That feels somehow un-Big Thief yet also completely, perfectly Big Thief.

From my vantage point — very close to the front, surrounded mostly by people also who did-not-get-close-for-Weyes-Blood — that vibe seemed to be symbiotic. I’ve never heard so many applause breaks for verse end-lines or cheers for instrument switch outs (you shoulda heard the lady next to me when Oleartchik got a big fucking double bass on “Born For Loving You”). “Certainty” was the night’s massive sing-a-long (gathering an impassioned swell around the skin-prickle-domestic-snuggle of Lenker’s “romance, action, mystery” line), and as a closer, the raucous stomp-along of “Spud Infinity” was — speaking in the strictest dictionary definition of a “hoot and a holler” — a hoot and a holler. Crazy drum solos! Lenker throwing in extra little lines to further explain how the past is not actually a “history book” and later actually stopping to annotate that bit about elbows (“you can’t kiss them!”). Cheers when they brought a dude out in a cowboy hat! Double cheers when it was revealed the cowboy hat dude was playing the jaw harp! Triple cheers when the crazy drum solo became a crazy drum and jaw harp solo!

Afterwards, I did the dumb thing and checked Twitter. This was quickly revealed as “the dumb thing,” so I wasn’t on there that long. But I did see some complaints about the band having “no stage presence” and a murmur or two about how they’d never seen an audience speak so loudly over a headliner before. I’m sure other parts of the crowd had a completely different experience from me. I can only assert that, at the very end, when Lenker pointed out the celestial arrival of a “nice little moon,” I didn’t see a single person who didn’t turn around to look at it, as though everyone was briefly tapped into the same idea. Yeah, Big Thief are a band, but the moon is the fucking moon. We gotta feel what we can feel together.

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