Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief stopped for a minute, waiting to catch her breath before she and the rest of the four-piece band played another song. She told the audience that she had been having a mellow day and was unsure of how she was going to perform. But, somehow, before the concert, she said she was able to find the magic that makes everything come together. To be sure, that magic — that confidence to wade through the sprawling ocean of human emotion — was on full display during Big Thief’s set Thursday night.
The Brooklyn-based indie rock band performed at the small but intimate Anna Head Alumnae Hall for an event organized by SUPERB. Having garnered critical recognition for its debut album, Masterpiece, Big Thief is on tour to promote its latest album, Capacity. Big Thief’s performance Thursday was preceded by a one-two punch of the supremely talented Julian Carpenter, Berkeley’s own in-house musician, and the Bob Dylan-esque folk band Little Wings.
After getting on stage, Lenker & Co. interacted with the audience for a bit. The band members had a very unassuming air to them, as if the they were fellow awkward classmates who had no idea what they were doing.
Lenker went mostly solo for the first couple of songs, with “Lorraine” in particular acting as a powerful demonstration of her soft, aching and deeply affecting voice. “Lorraine” is also as good an example as any of Big Thief’s ability to conjure up powerful imagery through lyrics such as “two lovers forming from fiction” and “hummingbirds screaming at ravens.”
But when the rest of the band joined along with Lenker’s vocals, the fun really started. Buck Meek on guitar and James Krivchenia on drums provided a glimpse of their simmering potential with “Masterpiece,” one of Big Thief’s breakout hits from its first album. The song, as soon as it was performed, felt fundamentally personal — it somehow made us a part of the lives of the people standing before us. You could feel the love, the bittersweet nostalgia and, most of all, the comfort from somebody wrapping “her left arm around your right.”
Unlike the recorded version, which relied on Lenker for the vocals, the entire band chimed in for “Masterpiece,” making the song a product of all of their experiences. A defining moment of the night was when Krivchenia’s and Meek’s instruments took over for the bridge, rising over the mix to deliver a sound that was fresh and extemporaneous, as if the band had improvised some of it on the spot. Big Thief had now transitioned from a mostly slow tempo to a more experimental and dynamic one.
After the delectable “Masterpiece,” Lenker, with Meek for support, regaled the crowd a few songs later with a slow-burning guitar solo during “Real Love” that was piercing, unique and messy all at the same time. You did not know what she was going for, but by the time she got there, and the rest of the band joined in, everything clicked. The solo itself is again different in style from the recorded version of “Real Love.” While that was more passionate, intense and head-thumpingly fast in tempo, the one that Lenker performed during the concert was more balanced. Maybe the difference was intentional on Lenker’s part, who, as she would go on to say, was having a mellower night than usual.
Either way, the crowd erupted into a huge applause after “Real Love” reached its final crescendo. For most of us, the moment that “Real Love” ended was the moment when Big Thief changed from a band about love and loss to something more beautiful.
After capping off the night with the melancholy “Paul,” Big Thief took its bow. The night acted as an effective introduction for new listeners to check out the band’s well-coordinated and experimental sound. Music is always hard to put into words, but there is an ethereality to Big Thief that makes it well-suited for joy, heartbreak and everything in between.