Big Thief @ Fly By Night
w/ Slow Dancer, Lucy Peach
Thursday, December 7, 2017
Designed by celebrated Australian architect and First World War general Lieutenant General Sir Joseph John Talbot Hobbs in 1897 and located right in the heart of Fremantle, Victoria Hall is an absolutely majestic beauty of a building that dates back to the gold rush era.
A monument of class and sophistication, the Hall has been home to numerous arts organisations over the years and has been the scene of many a memorable night harking back to the dancehall days of the colonial era. Theatre productions, live music, weddings, political rallies… Victoria Hall has pretty much seen it and done it all. If its ageing walls could speak, one can just imagine the amazing stories that it could tell.
Given the handsome, historical nature of the venue and the timeless, old-school elegance of Big Thief’s enchanting brand of melodic indie folk rock, it’s fitting that Victoria Hall – where The Fly By Night Musicians Club, a non-profit community musicians club and music venue, is housed – was the setting for the first leg of the Brooklyn band’s latest Australian tour because as far as match-ups go, this one was near on perfect and made for quite the memorable occasion.
Big Thief’s profile has been on an upward trajectory ever since their stunning debut Masterpiece arrived fully formed in 2016, wowing fans, critics and fellow musicians alike – Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy was a huge fan of the album – with its stellar songwriting and accomplished musicianship. The album was so good – especially for a debut offering – that most folks didn’t even bother questioning its somewhat overconfident title.
Sophomore album Capacity, released back in June a mere seven months after its predecessor, carried on from where Masterpiece left off in effortless fashion, delivering more of the high-quality tunesmanship and ensemble playing that impressed all and sundry first time around, proving with a flourish that their debut was no flash in the pan.
Having already visited Western Australia once this year to play the Perth Festival’s Chevron Gardens, local Big Thief fans must be feeling like Christmas had come early this year when the band announced that they were returning for another round of Aussie shows so soon after. On the night, playing with easy precision in such a magical venue like Victoria Hall and bolstered by a perfect live sound mix, Big Thief did not disappoint.
Playing as a three-piece – guitarist Buck Meek was missing in action for the show – of Adrianne Lenker on vocals and guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass and James Krivchenia, looking like a dead ringer for The Band’s Richard Manuel, on drums – Big Thief were even more stripped down and mellow than usual, affording their atmospheric, mid-tempo songs more space to stretch out.
Pulling mainly from their two albums released thus far, gentle, mellow songs like the gorgeous Pretty Things, Paul – one of the many standout moments in a set full of highlights – and Mary were rendered more intense and even quieter than normal while the uptempo numbers like Shark Smile – the closest thing to a pop song in the Big Thief repertoire – and the anthemic Mythological Beauty airier sounding and more melodious without the band’s usual twin guitar attack. But they were no less powerful sounding, thanks in large part to Lenker’s hugely impressive guitar playing chops which more than made up for the loss of Meek’s lead guitar dynamics.
Not only can Lenker sing like a bird, she can also write truly beautiful, personal songs about things like life, love, loss and growing up, and pick away on the electric guitar with the best of them. A formidable talent indeed.
As the show progressed, heartfelt renditions of Great White Shark – one of the more immediate tracks from Capacity – and fan favourite Real Love were genuine hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your neck moments with Lenker and the band seemingly lost in the gorgeous noise that they were conjuring up. The band also found the opportunity to present a new song called Terminal Paradise which pointed to a moodier, less rocky sounding new direction for the band’s next record.
Despite the frequency of slow, similar sounding songs cropping up in the set, the crowd in the hall remained attentive and up for it throughout the show, a testament to the band’s subtle powers of attraction which is solely dependent on being able to play their songs passionately and perfectly on stage. Rather than rely on crass showmanship, Big Thief kept the banter and unnecessary histrionics down to a minimum and just got on with the job of being the kick-ass live band that they are.
Opening up the show for Big Thief on the night were Lucy Peach and Slow Dancer. Lucy Peach was up first and gave a great account of herself with a set of catchy, confessional folk-pop. Like Lenker, Peach is also a fine singer and songwriter who knows her way around the guitar fretboard.
Slow Dancer is Oh Mercy guitarist Simon Okely moonlighting in solo mode, who’s slinky smooth songs came across like a modern take on the kind of zoned out folk that Nick Drake did to perfection during his short-lived heyday. Looking like a proper rock star clad all in white and accompanying himself on guitar, Okely’s enjoyable set compelled me to go and check more of his stuff as soon as I got home from the show.
But the night belonged to the headliners. Over the course of a highly enjoyable hour or so of great music, Big Thief proved that you could make just as much of an impact playing beautiful songs in a chilled out way live, with no fanfare whatsoever, just as long as you have the memorable tunes and the technical skills to pull it off. In Big Thief’s capable hands, quiet is quite possibly the new loud.
Photos by Simon Tubey