Having released their 3rd excellent record in 4 years, the New York indie-folk quartet, Big Thief, is one of the hottest tickets around right now. We went to see them perform at the Roundhouse on May 23rd to see if they could keep up their winning streak.
When an act, or group, get to their third record and manage to improve on an already very impressive formula consistently, naturally people start to consider them as an important entity. Off the back of the latest album, U.F.O.F, Big Thief has quietly dominated the second half of this decade. On 2016’s Masterpiece they showed much promise and potential of what was to come, on 2017’s Capacity we got to see them flex their creative muscles as a unit and even on last year’s solo album from front woman Adrienne Lenker’s abysskiss, she presented herself as an incredibly talented songwriter. Now, they appear to be operating on an entirely different stratosphere to everyone else in a similar way to how Radiohead kept on evolving in the 90s and 2000s. Big Thief is the real deal.
In a live setting, the New York quartet has always been a strange experience. Bursting with energy, and a surprising sense of humour, the band’s looseness previously appeared to belittle the seriousness of their recorded output. With U.F.O.F, however, the band have now embraced that shaggy dog-feel to their performances to record, meaning they have synced up everything that makes them so special into one perfectively cohesive experience.
At the beginning of the year, Lenker toured her abysskiss album solo, and those stunning performances appear to have directly informed the whole band’s operation. Tracks she played solo at Union Chapel (such as tonight’s opener ‘Spud Infinity’) are reworked into fully breathing lifeforms by her band tonight. ‘From’ and ‘Terminal Paradise’ appeared on U.F.O.F, incorporating Max Oleartchik (bass) and James Krivchenia (drums) jazz-influenced rhythm section further. It is immediately obvious that these four musicians – completed by lead guitarist Buck Meek – are so in tune with each other they perform magic tricks right in front of us.
A perfect example of this is ‘Magic Dealer’, the closing song of Big Thief’s latest album. On the recorded version, it is almost entirely Lenker driven, supported by some haunting feedback and the occasional interruption from the drums. Initially, the band stay faithful to recreating this haunting song live, until at the point the track normally trails off into an infinity-loop (if you have the vinyl version), the band suddenly, unexpectedly, go into a full band wig-out of the same tune catching the crowd off guard for a moment. Throughout the performance, the crowd seemed completely in awe of these four amazing artists performing, to the point that when Lenker does finally break cover and thank the crowd, she appears overawed herself.
The confidence at which Big Thief is currently operating with is mind-blowing. We are in the presence of a truly great band who are showing no intentions of slowing down – they’ve already booked their next trip to these shores next year, possibly with more new material by then. Their set choices were perfectly paced, although at this point it feels like they could play anything from their back catalogue or wealth on as-of-yet unreleased songs and still pull it off. The band shift from unknown songs, to the new album, to a Buck Meek solo track, until eventually getting to the big hitters of ‘Mythological Beauty’, ‘Paul’ and ‘Masterpiece’.
There’s a particularly wonderful moment towards the end of tonight’s set. Eschewing a traditional encore, before launching into a stunning rendition of ‘Real Love’, Oleartchik (who apparently decides on the band’s setlists) whispers something into Lenker’s ear just before a smile and a nod to the rest of the band. The message conveyed, apparently, was that the band was immediately going into ‘Mary’ to close the show, and the band are so telepathically in-tune, yet so naturally ready that they play a rockier version of their piano-ballad as if they are rediscovering their own material with every show they play. Their power is real, go and watch Big Thief, you will be amazed by what they can do.