Review: Four Thieves in the Palace

My Wednesday began with a groggy wake up and a sprint to my 8:30am Physics class. Despite the daily trials and tribulations of this thing we call life, I had something pulling me through the day with such ferocity that before I noticed, it was almost time to head downtown. As the 7 o’clock hour crested its midpoint, I hopped on my trusty steed (read: bicycle) and pedaled down to the Palace Theater in Downtown Saint Paul. 

It was a gorgeous night for a ride. I summited Summit Hill just as the sun’s light was fading from the sky and I glimpsed a stunning view of the city and river basin at twilight. Rather than bombing it down Ramsey Hill, I took the more shallow route past the cathedral and the capitol building, running into a fellow self-propelled traveler along the way. We exchanged niceties and rode together in a peaceful silence, knowing not that we were heading to the same destination.

When I arrived at the venue and chained up my bicycle, the lines filled the alley. I headed for one of the turnstiles, presented my papers at the door, and began making my way down to the floor. After a short pitstop for a refreshing, post-ride cup of water, I found myself stage left about 50 feet from the action, a pretty solid spot in my opinion. The opener, Kara-Lis Coverdale, was live-composing massive soundscapes for (unfortunately) a largely uninterested and unamused audience. While I must admit that I too was not particularly gripped by the performance initially, the more I sat with it the more intrigued I became. It was one part, about halfway through their set, that did it for me: the ambient music took a sinister turn and suddenly I was vaguely aware that some sense of fear had been triggered within me. The low-frequency, high-volume bass sent earth-shaking pulses of air past me, giving a physically chilling sensation to the already foreboding aural experience. Eventually this moment in the composition passed, but remained the most fascinating part of the opening set. With a quick set of bows, Kara-Lis was off the stage before half the crowd even noticed.

Fifteen minutes later, Big Thief–Adrianne Lenker (guitar, lead vocals) in all black with a stunning sheer top and a freshly bleached buzz cut, Buck Meek (guitar, backing vocals) ever the bespoke cowboy, Max Oleartchik (bass, backing vocals) in 80’s tracksuit and matching mustache, and James Krivchenia (drums, backing vocals) bearded and beautiful as always–emerged to thunderous applause. They began with a delectable playing of Change, the first song off of their latest album: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, and followed this up with a few more songs from the new release (Blue Lightning, Dried Roses). The set also featured a few fan favorites from past albums (Masterpiece, Cattails) and a set-closing Spud Infinity that got all the tater-loving Minnesotans doing a jig in the pit. 

Throughout the night, the band moved as one. The cracks and pops of Buck’s voice carrying the warmth of old vinyl on a record player, and the intertwining of his guitar with Adrianne’s creating a mystical comfort and making two guitars sound simultaneously like ten and like one. Big Thief’s lyrics are so rich that my body gets chills before my brain processes the words and registers their meaning. The mystical comfort that emanates from Buck and Adrianne’s guitar playing is amplified ten-fold by the poetry spoken and sung over top. Big Thief’s music reveals an underlying magic about our world, something at once impossible to describe, yet universally recognizable, that is only glimpsed sparingly in one’s life.

When they set down their instruments and headed off stage, it appeared, to my surprise, that they were done, save for an encore. There was no indication that a second set was coming. I had been thinking for a while, during the first part of the show, that they were perhaps going to do a little Bob Dylan thing and play a slightly stripped, mostly acoustic first set and come back with a hard hitting, rock-a-thon of a second set; but it wasn’t in the cards. It seems my long standing love of jam bands has spoiled me with the expectation of four-hour multi-set extravaganzas, but still, if I’m being honest–which I generally try to be–I was hoping for a bit more from Big Thief. I had really wanted to hear the new song Little Things and a few tunes off of the UFOF album, but alas, beggars can’t be choosers, and it was still a damn good show, and one that wasn’t yet over.

When the band did, naturally, return for an encore, I put aside my laments (partially out of a false hope that this was the start of the second set) and prepared myself to thrash. With the first two bass notes I knew my desire to thrash would be gratified: they were going to play Not. As Adrianne screamed and soothed with her voice and shredded on guitar, Buck gyrated uncontrollably as the music moved him, and James and Max held down the rhythm and the low end keeping it high and tight. Meanwhile, me and 2,500 friends flung our heads and hair to and fro with the music as four thieves stole the show at the Palace.

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