“The atom is an empty vase
A vehicle to know embrace
The way you feel, the way you taste
The honorific “instant classic” is rarely afforded to albums these days – Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters definitely, Kendrick’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers maybe – but Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You felt deserving of the title.
The folk-rock band’s heaving double album, released at the beginning of the year, was a major statement, a profoundly moving record that, for most, confirmed Adrianne Lenker’s position as a generational songwriter. Alongside bandmates Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia, the foursome experimented both quietly and loudly throughout the 20 songs, showing themselves equally capable of being wildly weird or resolutely accessible.
The critical adulation also felt, one hoped, like a tentative pushback against the draining effects of poptimism (only the album’s position in the soon-to-arrive end-of-year lists will confirm this to be true).
It didn’t matter which song did it for you, whether it was the haunting melancholia of “The Only Place” or the skidding americana of “Spud Infinity”, listening to Big Thief’s fifth album would, at some point, vividly connect you to life, death, and everything in between.
At the second of their Auckland shows at The Powerstation on Saturday night, there was a delicate solemnity in the air. When the band quietly shuffled onstage, there was enthusiastic applause, but it was done dignifiedly; peering through the dim light at the faces in the crowd, all stood in rapt, almost devout, attention.
Was this how crowds awaited Young in ‘69? Mitchell in ‘71? Fleet Foxes in ‘08? As if to remind the hushed mass watching of their infallibility, the beginning of Big Thief’s set was filled with early misfires and false starts, the band only sparking infrequently. They performed insularly, as if for themselves, Lenker in particular seeming subdued.
But this is their way: in a review of their Glastonbury 2022 performance, NME noted that the band suffered “some misfires along the way,” and their renowned penchant for constantly changing their set certainly doesn’t lend itself to consistency. Nobody ever said Big Thief weren’t enigmatic.
And then the stoic Lenker – somehow both frail and forceful – would light up and let out a yearning yelp, utter a heart-stopping lyric, and you were instantly reminded why you were there.
When she performed some solo songs, her bandmates – who had been gathered to her far left throughout anyway – huddled together onstage, as if around a calming campfire, watching Lenker in her secluded corner as raptly as those in the darkness of the Powerstation.
The entire stage had a campfire or living room feel, and it emphasised how telepathic these four musicians are. While their set leaned inwards to their softer folk songs, the foursome not cutting loose as much as some might have hoped, the rest of the band were given ample moments to individually deliver.
The stellar Krvichenia got to animatedly make some of the finest facial expressions this side of a Haim sister on drums, while the sublime Meek showed why he’s previously played guitar with Bob Dylan.
When they arrived in Auckland, Big Thief were at the end of an exhausting year of touring; in late January of next year, they’ll get ready to do it all again across North America and Europe. They were wholly forgiven their lack of showmanship at The Powerstation as a result, and aside from one earnest reveller who occasionally drunkenly slurred encouragement from the rafters, no one seemed to mind the cool procession of the set. As if wanting to reward such patience, the foursome also rarely veered into instrumental self-indulgence.
Big Thief are a miracle of narrative. They are the band who stayed together after their two foremost members married and divorced; they are the roots musicians who have risen to become the biggest indie breakout successes of the last few years.
On Saturday night, the unexpected nature of this band was evident. Special but flawed, gifted but fragile, it was a purely human performance. Witnessing the misfires and the majesty, the duality, of a band with the acclaim of Big Thief is the entire reason we go to see live music.