Big Thief took the stage for their second time in Madison this past Saturday at the Sylvee. Their new album Two Hands is their second to come out this year, following U.F.O.F., which dropped in early May.
The opener, Palehound — an alternative rock band — set the mood for the evening as they played a set decorated with classics of their own and a sense of humor that had the whole crowd laughing.
At the start of the night, I had little idea of what to expect from Big Thief. I’ve heard most of their classics and enjoyed what I did know, but there wasn’t too much of a foundation for their newer music.
It became clear to me early on that it didn’t matter. What mattered was being there and being a part of something special. Big Thief, a quartet from Brooklyn fronted by lead singer Adrienne Lenker, stand close to one another on stage and place emphasis on their unity throughout the entire show.
Lenker reminded the audience of their role, often pausing the show and asking for the lights to be turned on. She checked in, she was personable and a truly engaging frontwoman which for me, that was the best part. Lenker is the type of performer that wishes she was standing beside you in the pit. She craves the electric energy just as much as the next concert goer that leaves without a voice.
Their hit “Shark Smile” appeared early in their setlist, a choice most strategic to the bands benefit. Being able to create a camaraderie, often done with popular lyrics or an upbeat rhythm, is done with a single off their first album, Mythological Beauty. Songs like “Mary” and “Paul” are nostalgic enough to make you cry. Having been the top three on my list of Big Thief’s best, time froze when their first chords were strung.
I realized while watching them perform that Big Thief are one of the few bands that can own their slower-sounding vibe, and succeed. Very rarely do you find a band that can play enough slow songs to make you cry, that also do tremendously well, in terms of popularity.
They are unique in their delivery. Almost all songs off Two Hands explore the dark side of relationships and vulnerability. On songs like “Forgotten Eyes,” Menker talks about the basic need for protection in the most simple way. She doesn’t hide behind hefty lyrics or is too vague with her word choice — she’s honest.
I had a moment during the show where I felt like she was giving everyone a few words of advice, like this was a group therapy session, and centered at the middle is live music. This could be telling of the atmosphere of concerts, in general, as nothing quite hits the soul like live music.
Lenker took time to mention their brief history in Madison. The band played the High Noon Saloon in 2017, a general admission ticket at the door was $15. She tells the audience that she thinks they played every song they ever wrote that night. Now, she points out that they’re playing bigger venues and being selective.
In my opinion, the setlist did a great job of exploring their sound, showcasing older songs and delivering recent hits that just surfaced this year. When a band has enough albums to pick and choose from, they’re often presented with a task, assuming the crowd is home to all kinds of listeners. Big Thief successfully took on the challenge and fans left happy.
Most of their lyrics, accompanied by a conversation between instruments, are meant to hurt or make you think. Nothing about their music is meant to be easy, but more so real. It’s insightful and it sticks with you. I left the concert immediately adding more of their music to my library. It’s the power of hearing a band live. It can make you a fan for life.