Big Thief brought a more raw and freewheeling version of their ethereal indie folk to the stage at the Wilbur.

10/13/19 – The Wilbur

When you listen to Big Thief, you get the ghostly vocals and tight compositions that make the band so special. When you see Big Thief live, you get something no less amazing, yet far more surprising: a wave of distorted guitars, passionate screams, and free-wheeling solos that pull you even deeper into the band’s enchanted world.  

Of course, Big Thief has never settled for the predictable. Adrianne Lenker, the lead singer of the Brooklyn-based indie rock band, was born into a cult; their guitarist, Buck Meek, grew up surrounded by exiled hippies in a small Texas town. Across four records, the members of Big Thief have drawn on every sound from tender finger picking to harsh noise, earning a reputation as a new and different kind of folk band.

Opening Big Thief’s show at the Wilbur on October 13, Boston local Palehound used their emotionally jagged indie rock to kick off one of the night’s themes: the embrace of imperfection. Palehound lead singer Ellen Kempner has written about her partner’s transition and her own struggles with body image. During “Company,” she gave space to the gasps and rasps behind her vocals, reminding us of that same body’s role in making music. As she sang, “You made beauty a monster to me” on “Dry Food,” she even let her voice split into a scream, the pointed force of her physicality breaking through the melody. 

The main act took the stage under blue lights, looking unexpected in the ways one expects of Big Thief. Lenker is missing a tooth, has a tiny speaking voice, and moves in a squirrelish way. Meek buried his small frame in a huge, puffy, red coat, and drummer James Krivchenia wore a beard of almost unbelievable volume. The impression was an otherworldly one, as if the band were somehow both feet away from the audience and visitors from another dimension. Yet when Big Thief began to play, the members seemed to enter our reality, swaying along with the audience and trading inside jokes across the stage. 

The band played fan favorites, including “Paul” and “UFOF.” But they played them in such a way that the songs transformed into sonic experiences you could not find on their albums. Unlike on their records, live Big Thief is loud—very loud. Although Lenker brought out a twelve-string acoustic guitar for ballads such as “Cattails,” the band played most of the set on distorted electric guitars whose models are favorites of grunge and shoegaze musicians. On several tracks, Lenker turned toward her amp, unleashing a high-voltage wall of feedback that she molded into long, wailing guitar solos. 

In using feedback—a musical accident—to make art, Lenker expressed a key dynamic in her songwriting. Many of Lenker’s lyrics turn her deepest traumas and misfortunes into poetry, and when these emotions appeared onstage, the result was intense. During “Mythological Beauty,” an audience member began to cry as Lenker addressed her absent mother, singing, “You cut the flesh of your left thumb / Using your boyfriend’s knife / Seventeen, you took his cum / And you gave birth to your first life.” Lenker also took advantage of the more mundane accidents that come with performing live. At several points, she improvised new lyrics on stage, jamming along with her band mates; and when she forgot a line while performing an unreleased song, she sourced it from the audience, asking “What rhymes with shoulders?” 

All this is to say that to be in the room with Big Thief is something altogether different from listening to them through headphones. Big Thief’s show at the Wilbur on October 13 captured the imperfections and singular moments that only come from real people, in real bodies, playing real, live music.    

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