There are positives and pitfalls to be had by being bashful. On one hand, you don’t wear out your welcome. On the other, a lack of confidence can turn the room red with discomfort. Incidentally, Big Thief were asking for the softest blue lights they could in between many of the wonderful songs performed last night at the Cedar Cultural Center. Frontwoman Adrianne Lenker didn’t want to be underneath a spotlight of any intensity during her songs. As such, there was an awkward relationship between performer and back of house throughout much of the show.
Incidentally, none of this shyness translated to the performances themselves. After all, people don’t go out and see a band like Big Thief for the stage performance. They go to hear the songwriting. I only mention the strange banter and awkwardness because anything that upset the soft vulnerability of songs like “Mythological Beauty” was uncannily felt. That is to say, the folk rock sounds the band put out were a blanket of warmth. When they ended, it was as if someone had ripped the covers off.
“Shark Smile” is teasing in this way. Its kick drum grooves are intoxicating and fast-paced, though the song retained the intimacy Lenker usually delivers in her strong whisper. It ended on an odd number of beats, and, just like on this year’s Capacity, it’s quite sad when it’s over. After all, it’s a tune about survivor’s guilt. As if Lenker’s delivery weren’t passionate enough, high-pitched guitar tones from Buck Meek squealed their way through the solo as if they were crying along with some of the crowd.
It isn’t only the general emotion of the songs that makes them great. There’s a Midwestern feeling to this band despite their Brooklyn base. Their label, Saddle Creek, takes root in Omaha. Parts of Capacity take place in Des Moines and even Northern Minnesota. To boot, Lenker has a history here. “I’ve been wanting to play here since I was fourteen,” she blurted out mid-set. “I used to do open mics around here.” The story was heartwarming, but beautifully aimless like a lot of the songs. I mean this in a good way. Though there are only two chords vamping for most of “Capacity,” it’s easy to get lost in the staggering rhythm. You’ll blink your eye, and all of its four minutes have suddenly passed. Tack on a gorgeous five-note guitar solo from Meek, and you’ve got a masterpiece.
Since there’s a real connection between the crowd and the songwriting, the characters in Lenker’s songs sound like people you may know yourself. Before a wonderful rendition of “Haley,” Lenker confessed: “This song is about my best friend, Haley.” As it began I racked my brain for the thought of a friend I would consider as strongly as Lenker does Haley. As such, I spent the majority of the song thinking about friends of mine, and her homage felt like it belonged to me too. Don’t even get me started on the emotional connotations behind the performance of the piano-driven “Mary.”
I was a little disappointed in the bands poor equalization with one another during louder songs. The snare sound was too hot, and the bass was hardly present at all. Fortunately, Lenker and Meek towered over the mix every time they needed to. Though “Mythological Beauty” was overloud, Lenker wailed her way through the third phrase of each verse with a passionate clarity. Even if you didn’t know the songs that well, she made sure you could hear the words; a talent that few of Lenker’s contemporaries share in a live setting.
Perhaps it’s good that she remain bashful. Nothing rubs a crowd the wrong way like pompousness, and Big Thief had none of it. The crowd and band were clearly on the same team. Toward the end, when the between-song awkwardness was getting grating, Meek interrupted a long silence with a “thank you” honest enough to get the whole crowd cheering. The smiles the band exchanged with us at this point were bereft of all pretension. To boot, Big Thief delivered the first natural encore I’ve seen since I saw Low perform in the First Avenue Mainroom two years ago. Lenker then graced us with not one, but four extra songs with just her and a guitar. No amount of bad communication could bring down the incredibly moving rendition of “Pretty Things” that closed out the evening.
The crowd: Eager, responsive, and quiet enough to have Adrianne Lenker thanking us.
Overheard in the crowd: Very little. Captivation almost all around.
Critic bias: I may or may not be projecting some of my own drumming problems onto Big Thief’s James Krivchenia. I can’t help it, James.
Best Neil Young-inspired moment: Despite the general Canadian coldness of a lot of the production on Big Thief’s records, Buck Meek’s five-note guitar solo on “Capacity” takes the cake. There were even fewer notes than on the recorded version, which was kickass.