Big Thief is Indie Royalty at the State Theatre – Portland, Maine – By Lea Zaharoni
Big Thief has been on tour almost perpetually since the 2022 release of their fifth studio album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You; a 20-track exploration of alt country, backwater blues, and the sparse, somber indie they’re best known for. On February 2nd at the State Theatre in the excessively indie Portland Maine, they were in their element. Buck Meek, also the guitarist and backup vocalist for Big Thief, served as the opening act, playing songs from a forthcoming project to be released in the summer of 2023. His songs were built from a similarly minimalistic, acoustic cloth, often using less than four chords and putting the most effort into succinct and meaningful lyrics. After a short set, he dismissed his own backing band, and welcomed to the stage bassist Max Oleartchik, drummer James Krivchenia, and of course, his ex-wife, lead singer and sole songwriter Adrienne Lenker.
Big Thief in Portland Maine is kind of like a joke – they’re like the two most indie things of all time. The flannel concentration in the standing room was a little crazy. Lots of IPAs and flat-billed hats and such. However, this made for a really great commune-esque vibe – everyone was there to have a groovy time, man. There was no pushing or shoving or obnoxious behavior of any kind – Adrienne’s writing and singing ability doesn’t allow attention to drift toward anything but her. “Sparrow” for example, whose lyrics adorn one of their merch shirts, showcases her often queer-laced storytelling.
Eve sucked the juice from the apple
Boy chasing after to stall her
I wish I’d have spoken to call her
Before she found fabric to shawl her
Adam came trembling beside her
And he said, he said
“She has the poison inside her
She talks to snakes and they guide her”
Or, there’s my personal favorite “Red Moon,” which is more a celebration of southern roots music and Adrienne’s upbringing in the rural Midwest. She’s in love with the natural world, and many of the songs on Dragon are plainly whimsical and fun, not so concerned with being heart wrenching and devastating in the way many expect from her at this point.
Radio singing from the corner of the kitchen
I got the oven on, I got the onions wishing
They hadn’t made me cry, filling the sink with dishes
Letting them air dry, waiting for the wind’s permission
I was lucky enough to see Big Thief in May 2022 in LA at the Wiltern, and in both shows they knocked out most of their “hits” in the first half hour of the show. They employ extremely little fanfare in between songs, finishing one and starting the next within a couple seconds. Adrienne made a couple headlines back in April 2022 for requesting that her audience refrain from any recording of her shows, and to instead be present with the band. They’re clearly a group that has an extremely deep appreciation for the art that they produce, and art for art’s sake. I remember at the LA show, they brought out Tucker Zimmerman, an obscure singer-songwriter from the 1970s who saw little success during his heyday, but who Adrienne and Buck apparently idolized. Now an 82-year-old man, they set him up with a folding chair and an acoustic guitar and let him play for about an hour to a room full of people who had no idea who he was. I had a slight view of the two of them in the wings, watching him in complete awe.
I don’t know how the band felt about their Portland show, whether in their eyes it was just another night, but for me, it was the best concert I’ve ever been to. Maybe that’s because I am obsessed with Big Thief, but I really did feel like I was in a trance. Adrienne is like some sort of divine spirit, and the way her three bandmates selflessly fold into place behind her just makes her beam of light so much stronger. It’s really criminal that there are people alive who are this talented, to write these lyrics, invent new guitar tunings for them, and then somehow externalize them onto a whole audience of people. Ending on the joyful, down-home delta song “Spud Infinity,” there wasn’t a single person who didn’t leave smiling.
One peculiar organism aren’t we all together?
Everybody steps on ants
Everybody eats the plants
Everybody knows to dance even with just one finger
I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart
When I say heart I mean finish
The last one there is a potato knish
Baking too long in the sun of spud infinity
When I say infinity, I mean now
Kiss the one you are right now
I cannot recommend Big Thief’s show enough. They are indie royalty through and through, and should be considered by all the gold standard for musicianship. If you ask them, though, I bet they would probably say something about being conduits and having little to do with what they’ve created.
Tags: Big Thief, Lea Zaharoni