The last time I caught up with Brooklyn-based indie folk rockers Big Thief was in 2016, when they were opening for Nada Surf at World Café Live, so their headlining show last Saturday, October 2nd, the second of two sold-out nights at the 1,300-capacity Union Transfer, was something quite different. The band, known for their intense sincerity, have established a sound that marries classic protest sounds with the poetic punk made famous by people like Patti Smith and Nick Cave and a 21st Century brand of teen angst. And the crowd they brought to the Eraserhood mega-venue that Saturday night ranged from tweens to their grandparents and both the most dedicated and casual Pitchfork readers. The back bar was filled with college students who were struggling to stand even before they took the stage, while the balcony and the sides of the floor were scattered with academic old hippies who may very well have seen many of our heroes of the ‘60s and ‘70s the first time around. And filling the first half of the floor, masked yet thrusting toward the stage and against their peers, were twentysomethings who likely count vocalist/guitarist Adrianne Lenker as their savior.
Big Thief’s live production has stayed relatively stripped, but the band manages to exude an emotional profundity that enveloped the room. Their 17-song set, which took from their entire catalogue, included a large number of new songs, which, thanks to the wonders of YouTube and streaming services, about half of the audience was already thoroughly familiar. For those who had attended the night before, the band had a new set, arranging the songs in a different order and including five songs not played on night one. And while the audience was admirably respectful of the new songs, it was singles like “Cattails,” “Masterpiece,” (which were played back-to-back early in the set) and “Not” that produced the biggest responses of the evening. However, I would argue that it was “Shoulders,” the band’s Cave-esque anti-political anthem that was the highlight of the evening.
Although few of us probably realized the significance at the time, it’s now abundantly apparent that Big Thief’s free show at Boot & Saddle in 2015 (for which there were about 20 of us in attendance) and their support set for Eleanor Friedberger at MilkBoy the following year are almost surely never going to happen again. In fact, last week they released their latest single, “Change,” and announced a Spring US headlining tour (following a run through Europe) that includes stops at the 3,000-capacity Kings Theatre in Brooklyn and the 6,000-capacity The Anthem in DC. And while the April and May dates don’t include a local stop, Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek kicks off a tour next month in support of his latest solo album, Two Saviors, and will include a stop at the 250-capacity Johnny Brenda’s, which is, somehow, not yet sold out.