Big Thief @ The Orpheum, Vancouver - August 3rd 2023 - © Sharon Steele

Live Review: Big Thief + Lucinda Williams @ The Orpheum, Vancouver – August 3rd 2023

This week, the stunning Orpheum Theatre gave the symphony the night off in favour of a special double bill of folk legend Lucinda Williams and exciting innovators taking up the genre’s torch in the form of Brooklyn-based Big Thief. It was an exceptional pairing, artists like Lucinda having paved the way for current indie folk artists, and Big Thief showcasing their advances in songwriting. The night celebrated female-fronted musical excellence and fiercely unique points of view within their craft.

Lucinda Williams @ The Orpheum, Vancouver – August 3rd 2023

Lucinda Williams is undeniably one of the most highly regarded singer/songwriters of her generation even if having narrowly evaded mainstream success. Lacking the notoriety of some of her musical counterparts, Williams was compared to artists like Bob Dylan upon her debut in the late 70s for her brilliant wordsmithing and evocatively authentic musical performance weaving defiantly between folk, blues, country, and rock. You could tell that a huge portion of the sold-out audience at the Orpheum considered her appearance on this tour an absolute privilege, delighted at the chance to catch the prolific musician live. 

Though cutting a somewhat more diminutive figure on the stage, the woman was no less formidable in spirit than in her heyday. Her brash and brazen vocals lent themselves perfectly to emotive storytelling in songs like “Drunken Angel”, devoted to all those artists who had fallen in their prime having succumbed to their demons. The rough edges around her voice only added to the character of the performance, perfectly imperfect. Reminiscing about her rise on the scene, cutting her teeth in Houston decades ago, you could feel Lucinda reliving the joy of her musical inception singing, “I’ll take the glory over the fame…” in “Fruits of My Labour”. 

Williams expressed great joy being back on the stage, calling it a very healing experience. Lu introduced her strong band with a strong admiration for this group who always had her back. “Normally I would play guitar with these guys,” she said, alluding to health restrictions inhibiting her. “They would be following me!” A feminist through and through, the formidable woman had to fight for her creative freedom to make her unique brand of music, but thank goodness she held her ground in a male-dominated arena, continuing to make music over the years and releasing her most recent album, Good Souls Better Angels, in 2020. The album still has that feminist flame burning with tracks like “You Can’t Rule Me”, which she performed at the end of her long set, dedicating it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Big Thief @ The Orpheum, Vancouver – August 3rd 2023

After a brief intermission for the country crowd to explore the regal storeys of the Orpheum, Big Thief’s foursome of Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia filtered appeared. “Cool,” Adrianne uttered into the mic, taking in the grandeur of the setting. Hardly filling the grand stage, the band started with the quiet ambience of the yet unreleased “Real House”. Lenker’s warbling and pure vocals rang beautifully in the acoustics as she picked an entrancing melody on her guitar along with shuffling drums and bow strokes on a standup bass. I got chills all over at the sound and the tender lyrics invoking childhood and deeply personal memories–a special exclusive experience before a recorded version emerges.

After a strong start, Adrianne stumbled to find the words to the next tune in the setlist, stopping and starting “Cut My Hair” a couple of times. “I think I’m still in shock from seeing Lucinda,” she said, brushing it off and wading into the song’s moody progressions and chilling lines sprouting in complex tendrils. Revving into life like a coin-operated band, the musicians sprang into “Certainty”, a highlight from their latest album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. They ascended to a mighty volume in unison, kick drum and bass pounding out in the snappy tune. However, with such a transparent sound system in a venue like this, there’s nowhere to hide. At moments, we could revel in every nook and cranny of the masterfully crafted tunes, simultaneously spontaneous feeling and polished. We basked in the Lenker’s instrumental proficiency in “Horsepower”’s licks, to say nothing of her vocal control. 

Yet as the group bounded through the country-inspired tracks in the first half of the set, I got the sense that all was not coming together as seamlessly as Big Thief might have hoped. Lenker was keeping it together and powering through, but she seemed to be struggling with her monitor, and the band felt low-key on the brink of unravelling, but always picking it up the thread again. It was certainly an intimidating atmosphere; you could hear a pin drop in between songs, unlike most concerts that accommodate a constant chatter. This silent atmosphere was amplified by Lenker’s quiet focus in transitions. Still, the audience was utterly supportive, leaping up to applaud after particularly rousing solos. 

Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief @ The Orpheum, Vancouver – August 3rd 2023

Big Thief’s latest DNWMIBIY embraces a certain campfire twang and forges a strong connection with the natural world, unsurprising given that the band took a several-month retreat to write the expansive album in various locations in the countryside. And yet, in the live performance of some of these tunes in the latter half of the set, Big Thief delved into a heavier quality of their oeuvre, and it was here that they really found their groove. In the outstanding “Simulation Swarm” Adrienne came out from her rigid posture and strutted across the stage performing her signature close-to-home lyricism. Hitting their stride, they smashed out a string of belting vocals and noisy guitar as Lenker played with such intensity, both hands up on the neck, moving fluidly across the fretboard, feedback slicing in angsty edges.

We were treated to another new composition with a gracefully shuffling storytelling quality called “Words”. At this point Adrienne addressed the crowd for the first time all night, thanking everyone for sticking with the curve of the set and admitting that it felt a little strange for the first half. “But something happened and the dust came off a bit,” she reflected. “And this is a beautiful room to play in. As a little kid I would be like…echo! Or…whoo! Or la-di-da-di-da.” She merged playfully into the “What’s it going to take” refrain of “Spud Infinity”, a real barn burner that had everyone in the room loosening up, getting up to have a wiggle to the foot-stomping beat. 

The band closed things out with their aptly titled “Masterpiece”, their fantastically quirky yet catchy hit, and their latest single “Vampire Empire”, a vocally ambitious and wonderfully poetic new offering that grows and grows on you. It is equally pleasing to see Big Thief continue to grow and transmute, both as individuals and a tightly-knit group, and to catch a glimpse into their creative depths through their outstanding musical works. 

Thank you to Timbre Concerts for having us out.

Set List

Real House
Cut My Hair
Born For Loving You
Forgotten Eyes
Wait a While
12,000 Lines
Simulation Swarm
Flower of Blood
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
Spud Infinity
Vampire Empire

Photos © Sharon Steele

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