Big Thief Travelogue – New York to Seattle (Live at Moore Theatre) | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, December 16th, 2019  

Big Thief

Big Thief Travelogue – New York to Seattle (Live at Moore Theatre), October 26th, 2019

Nov 12, 2019 Photography by Charles Steinberg Web Exclusive
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I was never one to follow a band around because growing up in New York, you didn't have to. Bands came to you, and this contributed to a very snobby attitude. It's one that precludes the fun that can be had from whimsically hitting the next town on the next night, to see the band you had just seen—keeping those blessed vibes going. I always looked a little sideways at people who would do their best to explain why it was worthwhile to go to five straight Phish concerts, reluctant even to go back out to see a beloved band on a second or third night in my own town. But now I think of all the great sets I missed simply by taking shit for granted. Here's something I've come to the hard way, in the wake of the sobering realization that I will never know what it's like to hear David Bowie, or Prince, or Scott Hutchison, or Chris Cornell live: When you have an inclination to go to a show you think will be great—go.

A couple of years ago my spoiled attitude started to shift. The ease with which one can get to Philadelphia from New York had a lot to do with that. A visit to see friends led to my first Philly concert experience—an inspired set by Car Seat Headrest at the very funky Underground Arts—and the spark was lit. The next quick hop to the City of Brotherly Love took me to The War on Drugs performing a three hour homecoming show at the outdoor Dell Center in Fairmount Park. The twilight amphitheatre show—tucked into the trees by its grassy knoll blanket—became a midsummer night's dream in September. That was it—I was hooked. From then on, when I checked for the tour stops of acts I wanted to see live, my eyes darted up and down to the nearby dates that bracketed New York.

What I've come to discover, delightfully, is how much fun it is to use an upcoming show of a favorite band as a centerpiece for a spontaneous trip to a cool city or town. Those who don't know—you gotta try this. Even going out east from New York to Port Chester for a night at the legendary Capitol Theatre has come to feel like a mini adventure (Bon Iver). It's an excuse to step out of routine and explore different atmospheres; a little branch out into the unfamiliar punctuated by music that has become fondly familiar. That said, I've certainly never traveled farther than Washington, D.C. to see a show, and even that was too taxing. But now, for Big Thief, I just crossed the country.

Alright, that's sounding a bit extreme. Yes, I did just see this uniquely invigorating band—a tightly connected quartet that in three years has ascended to one of my favorite bands ever—at The Moore Theatre in Seattle, just two weeks after they played to a packed house at the refurbished Webster Hall in downtown New York. This is fact, but even before I learned of the Seattle date from the back of the T-shirt I copped at Webster's merch, my mind was already wandering west. I've been visiting my big cousin Deb in Seattle, semi-annually for over a decade now, and I hadn't made it out there like I had hoped to this past summer. So, it's not really like I flew 2,805 miles just to see a band, but it certainly provided the kick in the toosh I needed. By the time Big Thief played New York, my gotta get the fuck out of the city restlessness was brimming over. The intoxication of the fantastic Webster Hall performance hadn't worn off by the following morning when I booked a flight to Sea-Tac. I justify this by my number one motto in life: You always gotta have something to look forward to.

The fans that get Big Thief share their allegiance in unspoken ways—a nod and a smile, or a twinkle in the eye when they're brought up. To try to qualify what it is about them that makes their cuts dig a little deeper is elusive; there's definitely a mystique, propelled greatly by Adrianne Lenker whose humanity and presence of writing, singing, and guitar-playing is kind of, well...spooky. There are also the animated ways in which guitarist Buck Meek and drummer Max Oleartchik wind and thrust their instinctive beings into each gesture of their instrument playing, and how bassist James Krivchenia maintains the equilibrium, seemingly sending his low frequency waves telepathically. Then of course, it's all wrapped up so cohesively into a care package by producer Andrew Sarlo. The outcome simultaneously channels the traditions of great songcrafting, while making you pause to consider whether you've ever heard anyone quite like them. It's all so striking yet hard to identify.

Ultimately it comes down to the power Big Thief has to craft songs that provide the comfort of a warm blanket and hot tea after a day in the woods; songs that invoke the flickering glow of candles over storybooks in hidden closets, sending glimmers through misty country window panes. Then without warning they hug the corner into stirring folk-rock jams such as "Masterpiece," "Shark Smile," and their latest cathartic surge "Not" (covered recently by The National's Matt Berninger—I see you Matt), songs that mainline the very welcome and awakening rush of life in the way only a great fucking song can. In these pivots, they throw that blanket off their shoulders and throw open the doors to the blast of winds. These attributes made October a great month to see Big Thief. It all goes with the season.

I'm trying here to give an idea of the gravity it would take to pull someone across the country to see a band they had just seen. It lies somewhere in that glow you leave the venue with; it's something you are not prepared to only touch again through memory. I mention the following recent quote from actor Antonio Banderas simply to emphasize the point. As a frequenter of a lot of podcasts, I was listening to Sean Fennessey interview Banderas on my favorite film pod-The Big Picture. Apparently Banderas has made a late career Oscar bid with his latest performance in Pedro Almodóvar's Pain & Glory. Here's what he had to say about the sacredness of live performance:

"We are living in a time, it seems, where things that are not recorded, don't exist. Theater is a very ephemeral art that you live in the moment. The only thing that remains after that experience is the memory. It stays there—and it grows into you."

When I heard this, I said, "That's it." That's exactly what I'm trying to describe. I get it now. I get why fans follow the trail of their favorite Pied Pipers; there's nothing as singular as seeing a beloved band on a given night, taking away that little piece of magic that you and a few hundred others were privy to. Why wait two years until the next album tour when you can go again in a matter of days, or even hours? Get it in while you can.

So it was with this optimism that I disembarked my flight in Seattle on the afternoon of October 26th. Going back to the point of having something to look forward to: no matter what the rest of my jetlagged afternoon had in store, there was a booked hotel room—with those fresh towels—a seven minute walk from The Moore Theater, where Big thief was playing that evening. It's all golden from there, and so was the sunlight coming off the Puget Sound. I was told later on that there had been three straight weeks of rain right before my arrival, so this must have been right after the break of the stretch. The air was fresh and crisp...new to me. I greeted the gulls and visited the dispensary.

I subscribe to many Larry Davidisms—and one of them is that I'm not really the stop n' chat kind of person. So, if I see somebody outside on the street, I'll give head nod, a quick waddup, and keep it moving. I mention this because outside both the Webster Hall show in New York and The Moore in Seattle, I came across Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek. The experience of going to a show is always made more tangible when you see members of the band pop out before the set, maybe to check out a little of the opener, or to say hello to a couple of old friends from the evening's destination. When I made my excited, almost restless approach to Webster Hall on the night of the 11th, skipping east on 11th street with the streak of pregame coursing through my system, I saw Buck outside, presumably chatting with a couple of local friends. Big Thief originated in Brooklyn and though they've lived a somewhat transient existence on the road over much of the past four years of their precipitous rise, New York must still feel like home in some ways. Buck's back was turned to me but that fluffy coiffe of blonde is pretty unmistakable. As I strode by, I called out his name because, what can I say, Buck is a fun name to call out.

In Seattle, I had arrived at The Moore on the early side—that goes with the whole plan of seeing a band somewhere new. I'd been to many of the Seattle venues in past trips but never to The Moore, so you should arrive at least an hour before set time to suss out the area. I started walking up 2nd avenue to get a drink at The Crocodile, which was close by. It was the venue of my first Seattle show about 10 years ago—the awesome Spencer Krug led Sunset Rubdown—so I'll never forget that spot. How could you anyway? They run rock videos from the '80s and '90s on two TVs above the bar all night. As I was walking over to the Croc, there was Buck again, once more greeting someone I took to be a local friend with a grin. This time, I was a bit more formal in my greeting: "Yo Buck, have a great show, man," I said. "Hey, cheers." he replied in that Texan drawl that has stuck with him throughout his travels.

You wonder if artists who pass through Seattle appreciate the PNW lore. Do Adrianne, Buck, Max, and James have a fondness for Soundgarden, or Pearl Jam, or Mother Love Bone, or Death Cab For Cutie? And on a scale of 1-10, how much do they love Nirvana? Is this kind of thing acknowledged and discussed on the ride in? Or in the greenroom? Just wondering...I like to think things like this: The spirits of those who had rocked before you are left behind in a venue, especially a haunt like The Moore, and new songs played with heart bring those spirits down from the rafters, to float back up again under the arms of the downtrodden, lifting spirits anew.

No matter how colorfully you attempt to recount a show experience, you never quite feel like it translates the energy to the person who wasn't there. Suffice to say, I wish everyone reading this had been there. One memorable moment came right at the outset: After the band waded into waters with the folk tune "Terminal Paradise" from Lenker's gorgeous solo album abysskiss, someone in the audience said something to the effect of, "Rock out." To which another knowing audience member responded, "They will." Nice one, I thought. I felt like turning around to find that person with a big cheese grin when Big Thief punched it up a level, which, of course, they did.

"Cattails" from this year's brilliant album, U.F.O.F., expanded gleefully into an instrumental break that somersaulted into a sundance; it leapt out from the stage into the dark lofty ceilings of the old theater, turning it luminous. Big Thief played as they usually do, with reserved focus and love. With two back-to-back albums releases this year, they now have a bountiful chest of songs to choose from when playing live. "Mary" was a different display of their gravity hold, making the room weightless. And when there wasn't shit else to say, they sent ripples through the dark with "Not," pounded out in a defining statement, like that's all that ever needed to be said. Buck's guitar finale blasted paint from the already peeling walls. There was something more than exultant in the cheers that followed. People were stunned.

And oh when it gets you down
When you get that notion
Any way you walk around
Anywhere that you are going
If you ever wanna come back
You know my arms are always open

This is the chorus sung by Adrianne Lenker on "Haley," off of Big Thief's sophomore  album Capacity. That album delivered on the promise of the inaugural Masterpiece, confirming the consensus feeling that you may have come across one of those very special bands—bands whose music you play for people, watching closely for their reaction. This lyrical segment is as good a part as any to point to the ethos projected in Big Thief psalm; their songs do kind of cradle you, acting as a tent of refuge, and then instantly slingshot you towards vitality. I don't think it's a stretch to say that letting yourself go into their organic folk rock spaces can feel like an embrace from a friend you've been apart from for too long. There's that tingle of acceptance. A part of you that's been neglected suddenly feels alive and loved. It's the human equivalent of a battery charge.

And yet as welcoming as their music is, Big Thief stands at a safe distance. One gets the sense that they must, for the sake of maintaining their authenticity and perspective. More than most bands I've encountered, Big Thief appears to be a self contained unit, like a group that would exist just as they are, irrespective of everything else surrounding them. From their body language and in listening to them reflect, it's apparent that their music sustains them on the most fundamental of levels, as would air, sunlight, food, and water. They nourish themselves and one another—their minds and bodies and relationships with what they naturally encounter—by writing and forming songs. That they have amassed a large, devoted fan base is almost incidental to that survival structure. I recognize from this another reason I'm drawn to Big Thief: it's not just the warm and fuzzy feelings I get from listening to them. A fundamental law of attraction is that it intensifies when the subject engages with all of their being in something regardless of an audience to support it. A fear expressed by the band, and indeed a concept at the center of the recent release U.F.O.F, is alienation, and being careful of it. The thing is, the protectedness is not alienating at all. It's understood.

Leaving Webster Hall a few weeks ago in New York, I was consumed by a different kind of elation. It wasn't excited but I was stimulated, intoxicated from the warm bliss that had just washed over me. My stride was slower in the wake of relief and release. When you tap into the ambient energies of a live concert—they're just swirling all around you for the grabbing—this is the sensation you're left with. That's when I spotted another member of the band, bass player James Krivchenia outside. I came up behind him, trying not to startle him in the middle of conversation, and I reached out my hand and let him know how amazing I thought the show was. He took it and in a manner so genuine as to startle me, expressed his gratitude: "Thank you man, thank you." Something in the look he gave and the extra moment he took to hold the handshake made the whole thing clear. When people speak of the indescribable impact of Big Thief's music, the mind draws a correlation to this quality of being. It transmits into their notes, achingly sustained chords, frolicky, country and bluesy rhythms, and stories.

And walking back to my hotel room in Seattle where I would rest that night before enjoying the rest of my trip with friends and family, I was listening to Pacific Northwest legend Ben Gibbard sing in my earphones: "If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks, then I'll follow you into the dark." Outside of the context of this Death Cab song, the sentiment applied. Keep going Big Thief, because people like me need you to. I'll follow.

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