There’s a sense of spontaneity that exudes from the work of Big Thief – even when they’re creating the boundless and innovative music of Two Hands and U.F.O.F. or sprawling new heights on the epic Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. Is such a perception an illusion – are these masterful songs actually, understandably labored over? Or are the band actually that talented, that inspired and that closely connected that they effortlessly make some of the most rewarding indie-folk of the 21st Century?
An awe-inspiring setlist from the band in Cardiff would suggest the latter. The band moved between unreleased material, Lenker solo releases and four LP’s worth of songs (Capacity not represented this evening) without breaking a sweat (metaphorically that is, the room reached uncomfortably warm temperatures by the night’s end).
One would forgive the quartet for sticking to the tried and true after a wildly unpredictable and fruitful five-album run over the last seven years, but instead they continue to innovate and evolve in real time. Each night, the band subtly but impactfully switch up their setlist.
Tonight, a previously unperformed Lenker solo song, “Bright Future”, is added to the setlist, as is fan-favorite “Shoulders”. Somewhat unfortunately, the fantastic “Change” has been axed from the schedule. Meanwhile, other songs take on entirely new identities on the stage – the gentle title track from the band’s latest full length is transformed into a scuzzy rocker in one of the night’s most thrilling shocks. Performances of newly written tracks “Vampire Empire” and “Born For Loving You” present a band still reaching ambitious, improbable new heights.
Perhaps the greatest power possessed by the band is their ability to combine the starkly relatable, conversational and grounded with profound moments of wisdom and grace. Two songs performed back to back tonight exemplify that duality. The first, “Flower of Blood”, is stark, vulnerable and confessional – a surrendering of power that opens with a simple demand: “Give me some time on Earth to know you”. The following “Simulation Swarm” is sung with breath-taking clarity and spiritual assurance – a grand meditation on love, life and fragility filled with metaphors and imagery that evade easy interpretation. To listen to Big Thief, both through their albums but especially live, is to feel both profoundly understood and confounded and overwhelmed by the band’s profundity and vision. Taken in its entirety, the quartet’s live set feels life-affirming, an affirmation of what it means to be human and to live life as a “bride married to amazement” (as Mary Oliver famously put it).
The band’s latest full length, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, has been compared to the Beatles’ White album. It’s an apt comparison and not only because of both albums’ extensive run times. If the Beatles were the only band of their time who seemed both daring and beloved enough to risk including both “Piggies” and “Blackbird” on one album (back to back no less), then Big Thief are the only 21st century band I can imagine getting away with including both “No Reason” and “Spud Infinity” on one LP. The former is a gutting, downcast reflection on isolation, centered around a crushin refrain of “there is no reason to believe”. The latter is a bizarrely successful Bluegrass cosplay – fit with a jaw harp (dutifully performed tonight by Lenker’s brother Noah) and an ode to one’s own elbows.
“No Reason” doesn’t make tonight’s cut, but “Spud Infinity” does. In fact, it concludes the band’s exhaustive, career-spanning setlist that – at its best – felt spiritual in its significance. If this reads as a confounding choice, it instinctively makes sense from the perspective of an audience member. Representing the concert’s most celebratory moment, it finds the band at their loosest and most playful. The preceding 16 songs interrogated love, humanity and the many things that make life worth living. What could be a greater ode to life’s many joys than this anthemic, celebratory and frankly bizarre number that no one else but the members of Big Thief could have ever penned? “When I say infinity, I mean now.”