I’d never really seen a woman roar until I saw Big Thief in concert. It happened when the band performed “Not,” the fifth song of their set at Detroit’s Majestic Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 17. “Not” was the first single from their second release of 2019, Two Hands, which came out less than a week before the show.
At that point in the set, the members of Big Thief were still in the jackets they were wearing when they arrived on stage. There had been a genuine autumn coldness outside, and it was not much warmer inside the venue. With the hood of her gray, oversized sweatshirt pulled up, you could see Big Thief frontwoman Adrianne Lenker’s face just peeking through. She joked about it later, exclaiming in her gentle voice that she didn’t realize how full the audience was until she removed the hood. But in the moment, this glimpse of her face was like a vanishing point, all our horizons of thought and attention drawn toward it.
“Not” is structured as endlessly mounting anaphora of what it, unsurprisingly, is not (never, in fact, revealing what it is). By the time of the final chorus, the pent-up energy of the song is bursting at the seams. At that point completely mesmerized, I watched Lenker’s face as she wailed, “NOT DYING.” Screamed it. Made it thunder through everything that theater had to offer. Unsteadied our feet.
Her voice tore through something that night — whether it was internal or external, physical or metaphysical, I still can’t tell you. What I can tell you is that this moment and a collection of soul-stirring moments from the show will probably never leave my mind. In the mere weeks that have passed, it has inspired three odes: to Big Thief, of course, to Adrianne Lenker and also to the people with whom I shared this experience.
The First Ode: To the band
Big Thief swiftly took to the stage after a half-hour opening set from Boston-based, Ellen Kempner-fronted alt-rock outfit Palehound. The latter proved a surprisingly fitting complement to the main act, with their musical agility (their setlist completing full circuits from mystical lullabies to lively rock ‘n’ roll) alongside pensive, humane lyrics, when before I wasn’t sure if any band could open well for Big Thief.
Lenker, alongside Buck Meek on guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass and James Krivchenia on the drums, armed themselves with their instruments and without further ado, launched right into “Terminal Paradise,” followed by “Toy,” each drawn from their 2019 releases. Two slower, cosmic lead-ins for a band that has a way of creeping up on you — in other words, they could have lured us in no better way. The more upbeat Two Hands track “Forgotten Eyes” came third, for a well-timed change of pace and tone.
Not everyone was bobbing their heads to “Eyes,” but my friend and I were, unabashedly. Both of our signature moves also materialized at this time: He does something with his hands, like he’s pointing and tracing the trajectories of notes as they travel through his limbs, while I twirl my wrist like I’m conducting an invisible orchestra. Our responses to Big Thief were not entirely voluntary, my knees not always needing conscious effort to keep bending, his gestures also seeming unchoreographed. We were responding to musical reflex, instinct.
“Detroit’s got energy,” Meek said at some point, in the twang to match his cowboyish shirt with the two topmost buttons unbuttoned. In the packed venue, my friend and I both hoped that was directed at us.
Over the course of the roughly hour-long set, they went on to grace us with nascent classics, like “Shark Smile,” “Masterpiece” and, in closing, an electric-guitar rendition of “Mary.”
But they also surprised us with more new music — as in, songs that exceeded U.F.O.F.’s and even Two Hands’ tracklists, three songs Lenker introduced as “brand new,” but not without the disclaimer, “New or old, what difference does it make?”
One was quiet and meditative, and sounded like it could have fit well on Lenker and Meek’s side collaboration a-sides. The other two were acoustic, and the second in particular gestured toward new developments in Lenker’s rich songwriting. It capitalized on wit in a way that I’d never heard before, and blended in social and existential commentary with echoes of Bob Dylan and the American folk tradition it’s easy to forget Big Thief, for all their wonderfully distinct qualities, is a part of.
Performing songs new or old, talking or playing, Big Thief always looked like they were doing what they love with people they love. In the way they marched on stage in matching cold-weather gear. In the way they would face each other in the instrumental interludes. In the way they look at one another in photographs as well as on stage, like friends, too interconnected to be described as new or old — what difference does it make?
The Second Ode: To the frontwoman
Adrianne Lenker writes songs in the form of what you might call constellations. The intimate scenes and objects she conjures in her lyrics are usually loosely linked but, when taken as a whole, emerge in breathtakingly ethereal arrangements. This approach to songwriting lends itself to impressive representations of ineffable things like memories, and the people we know and love, at the same time that it never feigns to capture them entirely — being the galaxies’ worth of components they are unto themselves.
“Mary,” off Big Thief’s second LP Capacity, is the prime illustration of this. The verses dart from intimate image to intimate image, placing you in the center of a solar system of objects enchanted with the titular character’s memory. “Mom and dad and violins / Somber country silence / The needle stopped the kicking / The clothespins on the floor,” Lenker sings in the second of these verses; the chorus, over a minute long, is even more spellbinding, flipping relentlessly through the scrapbook of enchanted still lifes of her time with the real-life friend Mary. (Some of these objects you can almost hear creaking and tapping in the studio version, and make tangible appearances in other performances, like this one with 89.3 The Current.) When Lenker launched into this chorus for the final song of the set at the Majestic, it was the third time in that show that I watched, frozen, as everyone around me likewise stood still in awe.
Adrianne Lenker also writes about being in love in ways that are refreshing to encounter. She writes about “real love,” the examples our parents set that make us think it should “make our lungs black,” the bliss we find when we name it for ourselves. She titles songs after male and female lovers alike, and characterizes her relationships with refreshing earnesty, in the mess that love and imbalances of power make of them all.
When Adrianne Lenker sings about her mother, specifically, she can hush and still an entire room, like a mother’s lullaby, in fact, but more convincing in content than just form. And she did that night, when the band played “Real Love”: “Looking up to her / Watching her do her / makeup and hair.” My voice caught when I sang that lyric back to her; somehow, I didn’t see it coming.
And even before Lenker removed her hoodie midway through their set at the Majestic, I could tell her hair was short again. Maybe I should’ve seen that coming; Two Hands closes with the slow-burning “Cut My Hair.” It reminded me of how I used to feel when I would see Taylor Swift’s wild curls on album covers, would hear her lament about loving foolishly, and then took a little bit more pride in my wild curls and foolish heart — except it was a more complicated and mature experience this time. Short hair comes with a lot of baggage for me.
My mother is a breast cancer survivor, and when she lost her hair to chemotherapy, what she got in return were damaging comments about her appearance from the people who were supposed to love her unconditionally. I will always flinch when I anticipate the same disease, when I picture myself losing my hair one day, and can only see loss in that image — I can’t see strength in it. Not yet. I know Lenker does not shave her hair because of breast cancer. But I can’t help thinking, when I stare up at her, that if I do inherit the disease and lose my hair to chemo maybe that’s not the same as losing my identity, or femininity.
And I realized as these thoughts raced through my head and this empowerment pulsed through me that it’s this: Big Thief is a band you can believe in. Adrianne Lenker is a person I don’t know, but can also believe in. I haven’t really believed in any musical artists since feeling personally betrayed by Taylor Swift’s 1989 in high school, but I closed my eyes in 2019 and listened to the woman on the stage in front of me, singing about imperfect families and real love being “a heart attack,” and I believed in her.
The Third Ode: To those with whom I share this band, this experience
I did not know what kind of crowd to expect the night of the concert, and found myself pleasantly surprised. I ran into a short story writer I knew. She asked me what Big Thief song I would choose, given all others would disappear, and seemed content with my knee-jerk answer, Capacity’s “Watering.” I saw one of my teachers, who gave me a hug with a beer in their hand and inquired how I found out about Big Thief, before benevolently shooing me with a promise to see me in class on Tuesday. I saw a boy I had a crush on in a creative writing class freshman year, who introduced me to his partner and shared his plans to get a music degree at another college.
I was happy to see a number of friends and acquaintances who identify as queer, looking happy and safe. I was happy to see a lot of nose rings — to see young people who looked like they were dressing the way they wanted to dress. I felt like I could have been in the living room of a co-op on my college campus, just with expanded dimensions and technical upgrades to rise to the occasion of Big Thief’s largeness, their majesty.
The people with whom I shared that space got me thinking about how it astonishes me: how much our love for other people becomes entangled with art. My unrestrained love for my mother. My forever-tested love for my father. My fierce but well-meaning love for my brother. My inarticulate love for my friend who I know is responsible for changing my life, who I love and look up to in a kid-sister kind of way. I endow a variety of artists with these loves, but Big Thief is the only band with the strength and capacity to hold them all.
Actually, I went to the concert with one of these friends. The day before the concert, both of us independently googled the setlists for their tour thus far, then immediately closed the tab after doing so. Another friend let us borrow his car to get there — magnanimity that day knew no bounds — and we tested ourselves on Big Thief lyrics the entire way there. We made our predictions, but decided the band could not possibly go wrong. At the concert, after almost every song, we’d turn to each other, usually exchanging a nod or a grin or words we couldn’t hear, but still understood. That was the greatest part: sharing it, without having to say anything.
On the way there, we talked about Big Thief lyrics and potential setlists, yes, but we talked about life things, too. Naturally, then, my romantic (anti-)developments of the last year came up. At one point in that conversation, we revisited one of the theories that arose from one of these failed pursuits, that relationships founded solely on the basis of shared musical interest always seem shakier.
“Like us with Big Thief,” he quickly interrupted. I laughed hard, and if I were someone who jokingly punched people’s arms, I would’ve done so, but I thought about it more, and, to a certain extent, he was right.
I can meditate all I want on what this experience means to me, but the fact that I share its memory with someone I love is the whole thing, the biggest thing. The most it could possibly mean.
“Not to die, not dying,” she sang, and I didn’t think any of us were, but maybe Lenker felt like she had been before that moment, and maybe I have at times, too, and maybe we always are, but maybe I also believe she conquered that reality in that moment, with her voice and her music alone, and she carried me away with her. I wish you could have seen it and believed it. She would carry you, too.