Big Thief made their Leeds debut on November 8th to a dense crowd, adding to an already impressive first two months for the newly opened Community Room at the Brudenell Social Club. Katie Von Schleicher opened the show with a two piece rendition of her full band act, more than making up for the lack of a drummer with creative guitar parts and warm synth tones. It wasn’t hard to see what drew Big Thief towards Von Schleicher as an opener for their British and European tour, having clearly come from the same school of ethereal songwriting and dynamic vocals that makes their music so popular.
Big Thief waited nearly an hour after the end of Von Schleicher’s set to come on stage, doing so with little announcement or conversation before picking up their instruments and beginning immediately with four songs from their first album, Masterpiece. The band were touring without their lead guitar player, Buck Meek, dividing his harmony and guitar parts across the rest of the band members. Adrienne Lenker, leading the band with her peculiar and strikingly quiet confidence, took on most of Meek’s guitar parts in stride, and they soared through their earlier songs with little conversation or pause.
Perhaps due to her strange, other-worldly voice and demeanor, or the lack of Meek beside her, Lenker seemed separate from the rest of the band, somewhere else if not three feet away from them all. In some songs the lack of guitar parts was noticeable, but in others they more than made up for the absence: particularly in ‘Real Love’, which lost none of its noisy interlude to the missing band member.
Masterpiece made waves with its catchy choruses and brilliant production in 2016, and throughout it Lenker’s breathy vocals are both powerful and soft, her songwriting consistently strong. Their follow up album, Capacity, while more varied, contains the same attention to both craft and innovation that gave Big Thief such an immediate, enamoured audience with their debut. Lenker’s personality spills out of her songs and onto the stage, amplified live as her face and body move around her writing with care and practice. Dichotomy is at the very heart of what makes Lenker so mesmerising – practiced yet spontaneous, gentle yet unwaveringly strong.
In recording, Big Thief are beautiful, powerful, and expertly produced. Live, those same qualities are amplified tenfold – the softness of Lenker’s voice and lyricism becomes frighteningly delicate, crackling, personal and painful in the space she so intently occupies. In the room, the thrashing noisiness of guitars and screaming octaves are mesmerising and devastating, injected with frantic intensity, even without Meek’s leading parts. Lenker’s songwriting possesses the unique ability to punch the listener in the stomach with gossamer. The way she sings about guttural topics like sex and domestic violence is tender and gentle, mirrored on her face and her body while she performs.
The band didn’t address the audience much, until Lenker confided in the room of fascinated listeners that she wasn’t feeling particularly herself. She could either keep it to herself and feel strange alone, she explained, or tell the audience and hope they understood. Her admission of fragility on a stage while delivering a flawless performance was, somehow, the most Big Thief moment of the entire night. A band so rehearsed and frighteningly talented as Big Thief continues to capture people not just with the breadth of their technical musical skill, of which they all possess plenty, but with the bravery of their vulnerability. No clearer is that portrayed than in Lenker’s fearlessness to be fearful, embodying the very essence of what makes their music so special.
A notable absence from the setlist was Mythological Beauty, the lead single off Capacity and one of Lenker’s strongest, most affecting songs. The band did not return for an encore, despite the crowd calling after them for a few minutes before the house lights and music were raised. Their performance, however, succeeded in being a technical feat, adjusting past the missing band member with the skills of truly great musicians, as well as an emotional one. It is clear that Big Thief is deeply intertwined with the spirit of its musicians, and is so starkly affecting because it’s completely honest. Painfully beautiful in a multitude of ways, Big Thief live is a striking testament that there are few musicians who so fully embody the energy of their music as Adrienne Lenker.