by Caroline Smith
At Big Thief’s performance at The Sinclair on 9/17, I witnessed one of the most earnest performances I’ve seen in years, if not ever. Big Thief, as well as their two openers, Twain and Palehound, each gave the audience a glimpse into their respective psyches, granting us an understanding of themselves that was both moving and deeply personal.
First opener Twain is normally a duo, but for the night, Twain was Mt. Davidson alone, explaining that his other bandmates, Peter Pezzimenti and Ken Woodward, are home sick in their hometown of Richmond, Virginia. The showmanship is minor: he sits down and plays acoustic guitar, not bothering to move around the stage or assault the audiences’ eyes with intense lights. He plays with a subdued confidence, hands drifting over intricate plucking patterns like it’s nothing as his voice occasionally slips into a yodel-like register that catches my attention. He ends out with a song with barely any guitar at all other than the occasional strum and subsequent drawn-out reverb, relying solely on his voice to carry the night. It feels more like an open mic night at one of your favorite coffee shops rather than a sold-out venue concert, and it’s nice. Obviously, I can’t say anything for anyone else in Twain, but Mt. Davidson is a strong performer who absolutely set the tone of the night and piqued my interest in Twain as a band.
Next up are Boston natives, Palehound, who start their set nondescriptly, with vocalist and guitarist Ellen Kempner proclaiming, “We’re Palehound and we’re from here,” before launching into their first song. Kempner wears a high ponytail that flops around on her face as she plays, and at first, it seems the three of them are slightly uncomfortable on stage– they stay more in tune with each other than the audience, barely addressing us at all– but they get their groove later by addressing that awkwardness directly: “Is silence on stage as awkward for you guys as it is for us?” Kempner muses while switching guitars. Here, they start to appear more comfortable with speaking to the audience, and Kempner points out bassist Larz Brogan’s parents in the audience and introduces drummer Jesse Weiss. The most notable moments of Palehound’s set are when they strip things down with minimal instrumentation. Their more guitar-rock songs don’t quite showcase Kempner’s beautifully wispy vocals as well as the more subdued songs, and their connectedness as a band really comes through here. After this, they get serious for a moment, and Kempner talks about meeting Big Thief’s frontwoman Adrianne Lenker a couple years before and being stunned by her songwriting and talent. “I feel like something in the universe sent Adrianne to me,” Kempner says, “and she’s had such a strong effect on me as a person and as a songwriter.”
With the praise of both Palehound and Twain in mind, next came the moment we’d all been waiting for…Brooklyn band Big Thief. Their set begins with only vocalist and guitarist Adrianne Lenker playing, dressed in all white. She strums an acoustic guitar as smoke machine fumes whirl around her, lit up with blue lighting. They don’t introduce themselves– they don’t need to. Lenker exudes a humble sort of confidence that you can see in her gentle swaying, her eyes closed as she plays. Her presence is magnetic from the moment she steps onto the stage, and it is immediately apparent, more than it is listening to her albums, that Lenker is a unique and beautiful talent. “Those are some new songs,” is the first thing she says, after five or so minutes of playing. Her demeanor is relaxed, and she talks slowly and softly about how Palehound and Twain both mean the world to her, returning the favor from earlier when both Twain and Palehound spoke fondly of her and the rest of Big Thief. She describes all of their records as “life-changing.”
Soon after, they launch into “Shark Smile” off of their most recent record, Capacity, and the rest of the band gets a chance to shine here for the first time in the show. They are performing as a trio of Lenker, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia rather than a quartet because guitarist Buck Meek is off working on his own solo music. “But he’s still in the band,” says Lenker, “so don’t go posting on Instagram that he’s gone.” The next highlight is the titular song from Big Thief’s first LP, 2016’s Masterpiece, and Lenker’s subsequent admission that the song is still difficult for her to play. “Those lines, ‘you saw a masterpiece / she looks a lot like me’, are particularly tough for me,” admits Lenker, “It’s difficult to allow myself as much acceptance as I would give someone else.” It’s a personal thing to admit to a sold-out crowd, and an admission that gave me a lot of respect for Lenker as more than just a (remarkably talented) musician, but as a person as well. Other song highlights for the night include “Mythological Beauty” and “Mary” off of Capacity, as well as “Paul” and “Real Love” off of Masterpiece.
The last song played before the band’s exit is another new song, and Lenker alone returns for the encore. She plays “Lorraine” and then finally closes with “Pretty Things,” the opening track off of Capacity. While the repetitive plucking pattern of the song might not have been the most exciting for some of the audience, I thought this was a perfect way to end the night, showcasing what Lenker does best: Her impressive lyricism (“don’t take me for a fool/ there’s a woman inside of me/ there’s one inside of you, too/ and she don’t always do/ pretty things”), a unique and finely honed voice, and years of practice at guitar.
Overall, this was a concert I’ll remember for years to come for the heartwarming camaraderie between all three of the artists that performed, the audience interaction, and, of course, the impressive talent of Lenker and all of Big Thief. This show is one that had an impact on me personally and one that I’ll carry with me– genuinely one of the most memorable shows I’ve recently attended. I was thoroughly impressed with each and every musician at this show, and in the words of Andrew VanWyngarden, “it’s hard to blow me away because I’m fat and pretentious.”