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As the four-piece take Gateshead, the energy is enormous, but all at once so understated.
Published: 06/03/2023  Photo: Alexa Viscius
 Author: Eleanor Osada

Whilst they hail from Brooklyn, NY, you would be forgiven for thinking that Big Thief had emerged from the soil just five minutes ago — or drifted in out of the woodland in a haze, earthy arms locked in-root around their respective instruments.  They’re almost mythological, a bit of a mystery, but I think that’s where their seed of appeal is sown.

After a round of cheers as they step onto stage — with no curated fanfare or drumroll — the room fills with a polite, expectant silence. Adrianne Lenker, the band’s enigmatic frontwoman, tunes her guitar and says nothing for a good minute. Going straight into a solo version of 2019’s ‘U.F.O.F.’, her three bandmates turn in towards her and watch.

There’s something to admire, and even analyse, about EACH member of Big Thief as they perform. Adrianne - both in Big Thief and her own solo ventures - is the master of intricate, yet tender, fingerpicking.

Her songwriting bares a comfortable discordance, a pang - her voice an extension of this ache. There’s space for the lyrical excavation tonight, in such a beautiful venue. Adrianne’s writing plants itself firmly into the foundations: “And I imagine you taking me outta here / To deepen our love it isn't even a fraction”.

I once read someone compare Buck Meek’s playing - or rather handling - of his guitar to trying to trying to calm a wild animal. It’s true. I watch him intently, his guitar highly strung, as he wrestles with it. It’s almost like watching a puppeteer in a stage show: there’s real control in his jolts, the yanking of the neck, as off-kilter as it appears.

Big Thief’s energy is enormous, but all at once so understated. The four of them stand shoulder to shoulder, their drummer, James Krivchenia, positioned on the outermost right — rather than blending into the scenery at the back. He looms over his kit, now and then unleashing and convulsing into the percussive accessories. I notice him send the wind chimes flying crowdward (with speed) at least twice. Arms and legs akimbo, he’s a force.

Further fighting convention, their bassist Max Oleartchik sports a pink collared dress. He makes use of his space like a funky character selection screen, switching between kneeling on the ground as he plays, and either lunging over - or sitting directly on - the stage monitors. There’s something to draw your eye at any given moment, this stage is their folky playground.

This beguiling band of wilderpeople are, too, as timid as a rabbit at the snap of a branch - rarely speaking between songs, maybe for fear of startling the quiet, attentive Gateshead audience. Adrianne cracks a joke about “the old castle”, which prompts a giggle, but the rest of the night - it feels as if everyone here is busy soaking it all in.

Big Thief are here in support of their latest record, last year’s ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’. Most of the setlist relies on this eclectic journey of an album — weaving between their trademark folk-rock, the hillbilly side of country, and more appropriately strange infusions — Lenker’s purposefully strident vocals illuminate the mix.

A real highlight of their set is ‘Simulation Swarm’, an intimate, glistening song that spills and bursts, feeling as if an ancient spell is being cast. Adrianne is an artist, a scene painter with words: “A relief, beckon deep blue / Fettered in the magnet sun / Eat the gun as it feeds you / Spitting up the oxygen” - particularly here, and the clarity and delivery only envelopes you more.

For all the night’s softer moments, right when you’re comfortably drifting into the ambience, in comes chaos. Like the frenzied solo that ripens and rots through ‘Not’, as it becomes overtly more furious. Or Meek’s little wounded inflections that complement the songs so well - there are little flecks of violence amidst the greenery.

This band feel enchanted and bewitched all at once, making them all the more captivating to witness, and their magic is certainly palpable tonight.