Gig Review: Big Thief – UCSD Guardian

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Despite a brief ominous Friday the 13th, first two acts Tucker Zimmerman and Big Thief put on performances that once again show music’s ability to emotionally unite people.

I had forgotten it was Friday the 13th until an eerie, high-pitched moan pierced Big Thief’s opening song. It seemed bassist Max Oleartchik made a similar realization as he circled the stage with a bundle of searing sage. While the sound technicians worked on the speakers, the band began to harmonize their instruments with the ringtone, layering the guitar vibratos to create a soothing lo-fi-like melody. Their quick improvisation and ability to draw energy from each other was the first hint of the band’s connection and love for music that became increasingly clear throughout the concert. Despite early malfunctions, Big Thief put on a show that really felt like listening to live music rather than a practiced performance.

Before the PA system debacle, Big Thief opener Tucker Zimmerman was able to play his entire acoustic set. As the house lights dimmed, two band members helped Zimmerman, an 81-year-old Belgian singer-songwriter, onto the stage. Zimmerman sat down in a chair center stage and began strumming his guitar to a slow, romantic folk tune. He began with a song dedicated to his wife, immediately creating an intimate setting for his performance. The crowd paused to understand Zimmerman’s simple but sweet sentiment about the strength of his aging love. I wondered if it was easy to write this song about her; condense such vast emotions into four minutes. I’ve always wanted to write songs with easy guitar melodies, but I often end up overthinking the lyrics and get discouraged before I even start. Listening to Zimmerman reminded me that a collection of small observations can come together to form immersive lyrics that resonate with a crowd.

Zimmerman’s imprecise strumming and finger picking made his performance feel casual, allowing me to see him as someone who loves music rather than an established musician. For Zimmerman’s song “Backdoor Troubadour,” two members of Big Thief picked up their acoustic instruments and joined the stage. The trio performed two songs together while the rest of the band and other members of the backstage crew danced during the songs’ instrumental interludes. The whole crowd could feel his joy. Afterwards, Zimmerman welcomed the entire band to backing him for his final song, “The Season.” He passed his guitar to Big Thief singer Adrianne Lenker and took his harmonica and a small shaker. Lenker and Zimmerman’s dreamy vocal harmony really made me believe in their chorus: “This is the season when all the dreams of your dreams come true.” I almost cried. Typically, the openers feel separated from the main act, but Zimmerman and Big Thief felt like one big family with clear mutual admiration. Overall, Tucker Zimmerman’s opening act sparked a sense of community and gratitude that set the tone for Big Thief’s performance.

Once Big Thief took over the stage, I was instantly mesmerized by their musical prowess and folk rock arrangements. The band played music from all five of their albums, starting with quieter songs and progressing to the heavier rock sound featured on their new albums. At the start of the set, lead singer Adrianne Lenker presented two unreleased projects. She spoke softly about her heartbreaks, which weren’t always necessarily romantic, and her journey to understanding the prevalence of heartbreak in life. She frequently paused during her monologue, fighting back tears and clutching the body of her guitar for support. I always enjoy learning about musicians’ thought processes and their approach to creating art. one of the best things about creating art is that there’s no one way to do it. Lenker’s poetic candor made me want to hug everyone. Between the two unreleased tracks, “Sadness as a Gift” struck me the most, and was perhaps my favorite song on their setlist. For the song, drummer James Krivchenia put aside his drumsticks for a two-handed shaker, creating an airy melody that sounded like a release of negative energy. I like when artists trust the crowd with new music, like exchanging something sacred. It reminds me that artists are always creating, and everyone is always moving forward, even while celebrating the past.

Throughout the performance, Lenker tapped and moved his guitar to manipulate his tones, resulting in a messier sound that felt cathartic. Most Big Thief songs have an instrumental release as the song fades out one instrument at a time. Often the crowd cheered even as Lenker continued to play his guitar, drowning out the slow progress until the song ended. Still, I loved how the band created space for each instrument to shine through, either through the introduction of each instrument at the start or a slow fade out at the end. Even the bouncing frog noise featured in “Spud Infinity” received its own spotlight when Big Thief welcomed Lenker’s brother to play the jew’s harp, expanding their family on stage. The concert as a whole felt like an ode to the power of instruments, drawing attention to the importance of parts of a whole.

I left the Big Thief concert feeling warm in my soul and excited about life. The contrast between Lenker’s meditative vocals and the band’s rock sound gave me a sense of peace while re-energizing me to return to the world.

Grade: A-
Place: North Park Observatory

Image courtesy of NPR

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