Folk rock group Big Thief stuns Fox Theater with stimulating stamina

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Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff

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In typical Big Thief lore and wonder, the group introduced its set with a small French woman, handkerchief tied around her chin and apron skirt gracing the stage floor. In the lightest of tones, she spoke high praises — understood by those who retained their high school French lessons — of the “young, incredible” artists flanking her sides. 

The overwhelming hour that passed May 7 at Oakland’s Fox Theater proved the petite madame correct, while satisfying the crowd’s voracious appetite for Big Thief’s strained harmonies. A menagerie of characters filled the pulpit, befitted with cardigans, Blundstones, braids and tears. The crowd swayed to the steady, chest-pounding downbeats of beloved tracks “Replaced” and “Simulation Swarm.”

Big Thief framed the stage in a triangular composition, sloping from guitarist Buck Meek’s upright stance down to singer Adrianne Lenker’s seated strumming. Drummer James Krivchenia and bassist Max Oleartchik sat respectively sandwiched, but a connection on the verge of visceral physicality ebbed between the four figures. 

Big Thief transported its Bay-Area-hailing fans to the wooden Catskills home recording studio where its past albums magically came into fruition. The band’s intimacy intoxicated the theater, outweighing any of the Fox’s stone sculpted grandiose. Constant communication, through direct verbal or subtle physical cues, aided in the group’s synchrony for interludes of improvisation that spellbound the crowd in frozen glee. 

Lenker and the motley crew painted the stage with moving chiaroscuro, reflecting the depth of the band’s discography. Countless guitar changes, almost one per song change for Meek, seemed like second nature for Big Thief and didn’t distract from the band’s setlist. Texture ran wild through the night, with scattered brushes tickling the crown of Krivchenia’s drums, a lightness adding novelty to tracks such as “Two Hands.” 

The group’s 2022 album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You fills listeners with rhetorical and rhythmic adventure. The animation springing from each song translated to the live show, intensifying as pockets of enthusiastic fans acted as backing singers — best shown with “Masterpiece,” which provoked a choral chant. 

While the crowd’s musicality couldn’t replicate Lenker’s intoxicating tones, the variety of vocal abilities made for an endearing attempt to show gratitude for the band and its bewildering lyrics. For who else, besides Big Thief, speaks of twee blue jays, gentle raccoons and kissable elbows with such grace? Odes to extraterrestrials and potato knishes brought humor and levity to the night, perfectly complimenting the lonesome laments of Lenker’s solo material. 

Warbling, wanton ballads emanated from Lenker’s guitar in tracks “not a lot, just forever” and “ingydar” — a reconciliation of heartbreak and healing. Lenker picked at her guitar with intricate, careful attention, spinning cyclical phrases into a compounded rhythm of dizzy repetition. 

The setlist seamlessly wove Lenker’s pandemic release project songs in with the band’s larger pieces, which showcased each band member’s instrument mastery. Intentionality became paramount in the set, as Lenker or her companions stopped a few songs to adjust the key, cadence, sound or lights. For the latter, the Saturday spotlights in the Fox proved a tad sporadic before finding their footing, mellow and soft. 

The show rounded off as a family affair, with Lenker’s brother Noah twanging a jaw harp to accompany “Spud Infinity” off of the new album. The brilliant bounce of the harp, paired with the comedic casual lyrics, spun the crowd into a frenzy as Big Thief picked up the pace bit by bit until every lung in the theater ran out of breath and sides were squeezed from laughter. 

Big Thief gifted its fans a full force of bravado, with larger tracks “Not” and “Black Diamonds” finishing off the night. Lenker returned with more guttural cries and dramatic flair, with an electric guitar appropriately gripping attention.  

Big Thief’s staunch dedication to the music itself became apparent as fans left the theater in a breathless stream of bodies — some too stunned to speak as they attempted to firmly hold onto each passing moment of the show.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.