Photos by Deirdre O'Keeffe
I had the most special opportunity to see one of my all-time favorite bands, Big Thief, light up the First Avenue mainroom on on October 21st.
There have been so many beautiful reviews of Big Thief’s work, including this recap of their Minneapolis performance by The Current, that I’m not sure where to start. The band has been called “celestial,” “instinctive,” and “essential” by major music media and has enjoyed ratings over 9.0 on their two 2019 releases, “U.F.O.F.” and “Two Hands” by Pitchfork Magazine.
Big Thief’s music feels so personal to me because lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s imaginative writing allows her listeners to look inward to find meaning. Her lyrics softly break binaries that are built so strongly in the American conscience, exposing the hypocrisy in borders between life/death, young/old, individual/communal, near/far, past/present, and man/woman. For example, in “Orange,” Lenker writes about loss that transcends space and time: “Fragile is that I mourn her death / As our limbs are twisting in her bedroom.” In “From,” Lenker sings, “No one can be my man ... No one can be my woman.”
The crowd at First Avenue warmly welcomed Big Thief, especially Lenker, who grew up in northern Minnesota and played open mics in Minneapolis as a teenager. She looked slightly overwhelmed at the size of the audience under the venue’s bright lights, expressing her gratitude for her family that came to support. “Let’s pretend we’re at a house show and there are no good spots,” Lenker laughed, clearly sensing our anxious and excited energy that only amasses when a crowd really, really loves a band. I smiled and relaxed my shoulders from craning my neck up to see.
Lenker left high school and moved to Nashville under pressure to make money as a teenage singing prodigy. When she gained more autonomy as a young adult, she won her own scholarship to Berklee College of Music by impressing the admissions dean with a few songs on her guitar. She later moved to New York and connected with her now bandmates, and together they built a following through constant writing, collaboration, and small shows and tours.
While Lenker is revered in her own right, Big Thief is a union of all four musicians: Lenker (guitar, vocals), Buck Meek (guitar, backup vocals), Max Oleartchik (bass), and James Krivchenia (drums). On stage, the band set up in a semicircle, in line with their intention of harmony and equal value (and solving the problem of the drummer’s face being perpetually obstructed by a mic stand). Before playing “Mary,” a breathtaking song that starts with a storybook verse over a single sustained chord, Lenker glanced at Krivchenia on drums. “Can someone bring me in?” she asked, and the song seamlessly sprung into place between their instruments.
I felt most emotional hearing the brightly sad opening notes of “Cattails” resonate off the mainroom’s walls, picked on Lenker’s guitar. The song beautifully describes northern Minnesota’s watery landscape (“Going back home to the Great Lakes / Where the cattail sways / With the lonesome loon / Riding that train in late June”) that I grew up visiting as a child. There is an inherent tension in Lenker’s and my emotional and familial connections to Anishinaabe homeland, as persistent settler-colonialism continues to attack indigenous land and life through mining, pipeline construction, and government policy. As a non-Native person, I hope that our love for the north shore is not one-dimensional, but helps us align ourselves with indigenous causes based in the understanding that land is life (“Screaming in the field / As I was born” Lenker writes on the track “Terminal Paradise”).
I wouldn’t call Big Thief’s music political or protest. However, it does offer a philosophical rooting in humanism that rejects hierarchy and consumerist freneticism. The profound and simple juxtapositions in Lenker’s lyrics, like in the song “U.F.O.F” (“There will soon be proof / That there is no alien / Just a system of truth and lies”) remind me that none of us can be understood by human-made institutions and divisive binaries. I have turned to Big Thief to understand my grief after losing my friend during my first year of college, to find peacefulness among my anxieties about the competitive world around me, and to strengthen my sense of wholeness as a young, queer woman.
Big Thief surely pulls their emotional weight by sharing this vulnerability with their audiences every night. It felt wildly therapeutic to scream “Not to die, not dying / Not to laugh, not lying” with the concertgoers beside me during the gritty “Not.” In the fleeting moment, we let our voices break alongside Lenker’s. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the band played a sillier unreleased song called “Spud Infinity,” where Lenker sings about “accepting the alien you've rejected in your own heart.” Big Thief shows that depth requires lightheartedness too.
Seeing Big Thief live was worth it because each song felt like a shared gift to slow down and savor. I left satisfied, knowing that their discography is within easy reach whenever I need to rebalance.
Check out Big Thief on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube.