Some bands go to great lengths to make their live performances a theatrical experience. Others simply play the songs. Big Thief does both. There’s no drawn out solos or garish attempts at trying to engage the audience; the band – like many others – simply plays the songs. But because those very songs are as thespian and operatic as they are, a Big Thief concert can transcend into a theatrical experience anyway, whether the band planned for it or not. Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, what the band may perceive as a truly mundane natural act often becomes a momentous occasion to an external observer. This has a lot to do with the brains of Adrienne Lenker.
Say what you want about Big Thief being a tight, cohesive band who writes great songs, but Saturday night’s performance at the First Unitarian Church was Lenker’s time to shine. The band’s main songwriter and frontwoman captivated the Church’s sold-out crowd with her loud but whispery croon, dazzled with with her lead guitar parts and resonated a feeling of togetherness and intimacy through the basement of the 19th century church. “We’re all just human beings on Planet Earth,” she quipped at one point.
Big Thief is still riding the coattails of 2017’s Capacity, their sophomore album to 2016’s Masterpiece, but its deserved. The album’s Wikipedia page reads like a who’s who of “best album of 2017” lists, and it’s hard to believe that anybody who first listened to it last year has gotten sick of it since. The songwriting is just as on edge and suspenseful live as it is on the record.
The set list consisted of everything you’d expect and no surprises. There was “Paul,” “Shark Smile,” “Capacity,” and a few new tracks you wouldn’t yet be familiar with unless you heard them on cell phone-shot YouTube videos. One of them was called “The Toy,” which ended the set. According to Lenker, it’s about gun violence and how much power humans possess to affect what goes on in the political and natural worlds alike. Guns certainly affect people. But music does too, and if there’s anything in the world that can bring enrichment and joy to all the mere human beings on Planet Earth – or at least those in Philadelphia – it’s Big Thief, and they’re welcome back here anytime.