The well-worn trope in popular music of the "one-off, very special, intimate" show is an overly frequent one. While it's always a special occasion to see a band or artist return to the more humble environments which nurtured them in the first place, it can often also come off as an exercise in egotism.
What differentiates a band such as Big Thief is, there is an intimacy to everything they produce, unparalleled with many other artists out there. In May, the Brooklyn indie-folk quartet played their biggest show on these shores to date, at London's Roundhouse theatre and managed to enrapture the 3000 plus in attendance as if they were playing to the 425 people packed into Bush Hall tonight.
Next year, they will play just down the road at Hammersmith's Apollo theatre to potentially 5000 people, showing that this is a band on the precipice of greatness. It is an adventurous booking, but this is an adventurous band, who only a week ago announced the release of their second album of 2019, 'Two Hands'. The album follows critically adored 'U.F.O.F', released in May, right at a time where the overwhelming majority are more than happy to receive more new material rather than be fatigued by it. To put it bluntly, 2019 is shaping up to be Big Thief's year.
So what a whirlwind week it has been since the announcement of 'Two Hands' and subsequent release of first single 'Not', an absolute barnstormer of a tune from a band who seem incapable of producing anything less. A day later, the news came that the band would play an intimate show celebrating the new album's release, leading to frenzied attempts by passionate fans to get a hold of the limited number of tickets.
The excitement is palpable tonight as soon as one enters the room, supported by the rapturous applause the group receive upon entering the stage. After a quick thank you, lead singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker confirms what most people in attendance expected already: "We have a surprise for tonight, we are going to be playing our new album 'Two Hands' in full tonight for the first time... and possibly the only time."
The audible gasps from crowd-members during the pauses in speech speak for themselves. Next thing we know, the small crowd is fully locked in with the band who in some cases are performing these songs live for the first time and are still visibly feeling them out. For example on 'Replaced', Lenker orchestrates drummer James Krivchenia to "go softer on the snare" and "a little faster" mid-song, who happily obliges.
The quartet, otherwise made up of guitarist Buck Meek and bassist Max Oleartchik, form a tight semi-circle on the stage as if performing a magical ritual together, with the crowd completing the circle. The best bands tend to act as if they are a tightly-knit gang, or, in Big Thief's case, a close family, a spirit backed-up by the artwork of their two 2019 full-length records.
Lenker later explains how "We had written all these songs during our last long run of shows two years ago and talked a lot about the concept of releasing two albums close together. We recorded U.F.O.F in Washington State, and then this one in the desert just outside El Paso, Texas. Musically they're different, but spiritually, they are linked."
And indeed, there is an immediacy in these songs that counteract 'U.F.O.F's airiness. Given this is a first listen for the majority gathered in the room, it's impossible to give too detailed of a first impression, but there is an energy here that is closer to their more direct 2016 debut 'Masterpiece'.
However, eagle-eyed observers will recognise a couple of tracks that have made the cut here (though amazingly, still no 'Spud Infinity'). For instance, the excellent 'Shoulders' which precedes the already released 'Not', has been a feature of the band's sets since at least 2017, as they have a penchant for playing new songs at almost every show.
Elsewhere, Lenker performed album finale 'Cut My Hair' on her solo tour in January, while the gorgeous 'Wolf' - an acoustic number which clears the air from the chaos of 'Not' - also featured. The night's truly magical moment comes in the already mentioned 'Not', however, as the energy produced from everyone in the room, from band-to-audience-member, threatens to blast off.
There is recognisable mutual respect and admiration from both sides of the stage during the performance of this mighty song, as it is the first moment everyone involved lets the music possess their bodies. Big Thief performed 'Not' at the Roundhouse in May, and it made an immediate impact on spectators, yours truly included, then.
What's truly remarkable about this song is just how in tune these four musicians are together at this point that they can trust each other to produce such a driving, atmospheric piece of music out of their comfort zone and make it special. The explosive rush in uproarious appreciation from the crowd at the song's conclusion is a testament to that admiration.
After the 'Two Hands' portion of the show is completed, there is a continued focus on recent history. Four songs from 'U.F.O.F' feature, including the much-loved 'Cattails', to more delicate 'Century' and 'From' to a rip-roaring full band version of album closer 'Magic Dealer'.
In the encore, Lenker announces another new song, initially met with laughter in disbelief, the beautifully sparse 'Sparrow' before closing on the only "old" song of the night, the devastating 'Mary'. While other older hits the band have produced will surely come again, this was not the night for it.
Tonight was about celebrating one of the truly most talented acts of our current times on the cusp of an explosion, and what a privilege it was to be able to share in it.
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Words: Adam Turner-Heffer
Photography: Dustin Condren
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