The night after Big Thief graced the stage for two nights at The Wiltern, their principal songwriter Adrianne Lenker made a rare public confession via her Instagram. Lenker confessed, “I just wanna say that I have hard days and times where I can’t ‘deliver’ something like how the recording sounds or even something how like I played last week.” She continues, “Sometimes I feel brave and confident and sometimes I feel so shy and introverted”. Likely, fans of Big Thief would not be surprised by such a raw act of vulnerability, as such a sentiment is omnipresent throughout the Big Thief discography. The words written by Lenker are peculiar yet inviting. The tone and feel of the music, supported by Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia, can be atonal but comforting. To be so open and transparent with their audience, both in the content and the extratextual, elicits a pathos commonly associated with acts placed on a cultural pedestal. Like Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, and Bright Eyes before them, Big Thief has been given the dubious honor of indie rock’s messianic archtypes — the promised saviors to unburden the esthete masses from the perils of Spotify-curated playlists.
The consequence of being rock music’s great redeemers demands a heavy toll, including navigating the thin line between an adoring fandom and an insatiable parasocial dynamic. The slippery relationship between artist and audience has grown especially fraught in the age of the Internet, a place where everything and anything is significant and forgotten at the same time. We look for mythical signifiers to apply to our heroes’ journey (e.g., unique familial upbringings, previous romantic relationships) — as if the pain permeated through their music can only be valid via a tormented past. But all of these peripheral considerations seem to fade away when Big Thief is in their element on the stage.
While Lenker’s admission suggests a feeling of isolation and self-doubt, Big Thief’s performance was one of community and confidence. Their second night at the Wiltern began with “Change”, the opener to their most recent record, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You — a pertinent opener considering the band’s recent shift from a terse and aggressive tone to a more warm and inviting embrace. Such an embrace continued with the band previewing unreleased tracks (“Wanted You to Stay” and “Sadness as a Gift”). The response from the audience was that of paradoxical familiarity, as many in the crowd knew every word to ostensibly new songs. Such a scene can only signify the intense following and admiration that the band has inspired since their formation in 2015.
In the middle of the set, Lenker took off her sweater as if she was removing armor meant to protect the more vulnerable side of her identity. The set was shifting into a more tense terrain that the band has been known to traverse, including fan favorite tracks like “Cattails” and “Black Diamonds.” The crescendo fully formed and broke when fans noticed Lenker placing a capo on the fourth fret and plucking an Em chord — the opening sound of righteous rage from their critically loved track, “Not”. At the end of the song, fans have come to expect a blistering fury of dissonant tones, and we were responded to in kind.
In retrospect, with Lenker’s statement in context, it’s easy to see an uneasiness radiate from the band. There’s immense pride in the artistry of unpredictability, which shows in Big Thief’s production of their albums and the shape of their live performance. Expectations have led us, the audience, to expect glory and discovery from quiet moments of uncertainty (many of which have been documented and shared through multiple links on YouTube as totems to their greatness). Despite the anxiety from such unbridled adoration, it is apparent that Big Thief finds their strength in each other. Diffusively swaying in unison through a syncopated rhythm, Big Thief exhibits the joy and struggle of a merry band of travelling outsiders — peddling their wares filled with honesty, vulnerability, and personal devotion, as if the fragile good of the world is dependent on it.
Words and photos by Eric Han