Big Thief

Big Thief photo @davidwarren77

Review: Big Thief @ Manchester Academy 2

The last time I saw Big Thief, as part of Pitchfork’s Paris Avant-Garde section of the festival, they played in a packed out cute little venue I’d never been to before called the Café de la Danse – great space! – after Isaac Gracie (whom I sadly missed but I just so happen to be seeing tomorrow) and (Sandy) Alex G, both of whom are garnering significant and loyal fanbases. Big Thief acquired theirs in spectacularly quick fashion, their debut album Masterpiece having only been released two years ago and their sophomore effort Capacity the following LP, last year! So quickly in fact that I’d mistakenly thought Masterpiece was actually their latest album…

Here in Manchester their gig was moved from the cosy Gorilla to Manchester Academy 2, due to its larger capacity, and true to form it was brimming and expectant. Big Thief played an impressive array of songs from both albums as well as throwing in a few tracks yet to be released. An extensive trawl through the bands Bandcamp page, as well as lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s solo page, reveals no clues as to the origins and whereabouts of some of the songs bar via select live YouTube videos.

After much research, Big Thief began with the unreleased “Terminal Paradise”, a perhaps surprising choice for an opener considering it’s unknown nature and relative quiet tones. Saying that, quiet is definitely not a bad thing when it comes to Big Thief – the muted notes either allow Adrianne’s fragile vocals to shine through or serve to accentuate the strength when she and the band come alive and kick off, as Big Thief duly did with first ‘hit’ single ‘Masterpiece’. I have a bit of a personal backstory with that song in particular considering it was the one tracks I knew best at the time and most wanted to hear. I’d waited through the whole gig in Paris to hear ‘Masterpiece’, only for the band to never perform it (the cause of which I am convinced is because of the venue playing it just before their gig and, to my utmost fury, once more just after they’d performed). Absolute madness I tell you. To finally have my wish granted so early was most relieving and Big Thief scorched through it, complete with one of Adrianne’s gnarly jagged and dissonant solos.

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After the soft & quiet, the loud & rollicking, now came the breezy (or “floaty” as my friend beside me explained with a big grin) once ‘Shark Smile’ got going and got us dancing and swaying. I’ve had the very apt chorus stuck in my head for days now: “I said “oooh”, baby, take me”.

Big Thief followed 2017’s ‘Shark Smile’ with another first album classic, ‘Real Love’, which featured the best solo of the night as Adrianne thrashed at her guitar repeatedly – moments like this make you truly wonder whether she’s most free when up there on stage. Adrianne gives off a very shy-ish persona, not afraid to have chat as she proved in this performance, but somewhat timid and introverted. However, when she closes her eyes or lets rip on her guitar, you really feel something powerful emanate from her. It’s no wonder her two bandmates spent most of the gig with their eyes near-permanently trained on her as if half in reverence and half bated breath of what she might do next.

Next up were two songs I knew not of, the bouncy and passionate ‘Shoulders’ followed by ‘Not’ the latter being a stunningly dark track building up to climactic catharsis. Adrianne has a wonderful gift of building beautiful melodies, repeating or ascending – not the sort to grab you full-tilt or head on, but to subtly entwine themselves around you steadily. Listen by listen, the tracks will be stuck in your head for days on end until you’re unknowingly beguiled. ‘Not’ features such melodies as does next fan-favourite ‘Paul’: “I’ll be your record player baby if you know what I mean”

A mistimed whoop and scream from the guy in front of me led to Adrianne conducting a full-on scream session by which the crowd seemed to take up with equal power and pleasure, taking a moment to release all that pent-up anything and everything. She introduced the next song with a quote about her little sister, commenting on the fact that the only time adults ever seem to get down and dirty & connect with the ground is when they’re lying on the beach. So true. (And what a shame – didn’t even have the heart to mention it usually involves a towel as well… ) ‘Mythological Beauty’ ensued with its cute little ditty ringing out in my mind for a while between the next songs: “You’re all caught up inside”

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They chose to play a new song next – details of which I have been unable to find and unable to recall – other than it being slow, soft and somewhat lazily uncanny. Big Thief took the time after this to appreciate the gathering of souls in a single space, the connection between all the beings sharing such an experience and lauding that feeling of communal care, in a heartfelt and awkwardly passionate way. Following this up with an enchanting ‘Magic Dealer’ that exploded briefly at its end in wonderful noisy harmony, Big Thief quietened back down for a wistful ‘Pretty Things’ reminiscent of Nick Drake or Elliot Smith, with soft fingerpicking notes lilting around the room and velvety lyrics swirling around my hazy mind: “You’ve got lips like sugar”.

A gentle ‘Great White Shark’ kept us entranced before the magic that is ‘Mary’. Big Thief seem to have many songs with single names in their titles, and excellent ones at that – from first encore song ‘Lorraine’ to previously played ‘Paul’, however, none of them quite reach the heights of ‘Mary’. I shall not attempt to use more adjectives to describe it, nor shall I leave you with any of its many many lyrics, but it’s worth catching a Big Thief performance just for the delicacy of this song and its hanging airy hopeful melodies as Adrianne rolls off lines after line in a graceful rush of pure beauty. ‘Mary’ is a sound to behold as sudden last notes linger in the air before rapturous applause.

Off they went and back they came with nary a moment to spare to embark on a sweet sweet ‘Lorraine’ to lull us back into our trance. The drumroll of next song ‘Toy In My Hand’, with the heart-wrenching chorus in tow, proved the perfect link between previous tracks with the dreamlike set closer ‘Parallels’ leaving us in a happy hazy daze, beaming away, and dreaming of parallels as we ambled out into the cool night air of Manchester.