It was a packed house down at Manchester’s Albert Hall, excitedly baying to welcome Big Thief who are fast becoming the emerging stars of indie folk. Two Hands, their second critically feted album of last year has seen the band attract much larger crowds and demand for bigger venues than their last trip around Europe last spring.
Put simply, Big Thief are a fantastic live band. They bring the same mixture of quiet folk and grunge alternative indie that make their albums so popular. The soft acoustic moments, like the opening ‘Terminal Paradise’ and ‘Toy’ are sparsely played, sometimes without bass, training all attention on Lenker’s beautifully impassioned, haunting and sometimes strained voice.
The times they turn up the volume are the most electrifying. ‘Forgotten Eyes’, ‘Not’ and ‘Shoulders’ switched to the distortion pedal and tore out renditions that were possibly better than the album versions. All three songs actually gave me those shivers you get when you listen to music sometimes, and I can’t remember the last time that happened at a gig.
Looking at previous setlists they also don’t have a practiced show they perform every night. There’s a core of hits, new and old, but all in different orders with some surprises; new songs and songs they’d never played before. In Manchester they played ‘Time Elapsing’, which Adrianne mentioned they had never played live before.
They’re happy to switch things up as well, adding little improvisations where they feel like it, sometimes to the surprise of their bandmates without it feeling too indulgent or detracting from their recorded work. And it’s evident they enjoy trying things out. Each member has an odd idiosyncratic movement or dance; the way that Lenker, Meek (lead guitar) and Oleartchik (bass and onesie enthusiast) dance sometimes look like they’re playing different songs, the former jerkily swaying around like he’s trying to seduce his monitor.
It says a lot that my friend who’s only half aware of Big Thief came away surprised and ready to jump into all of their albums to relisten. They’re on regular repeat for me, but I might do the same now anyway.