Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
Big Thief, Small Room
Scorning South by Southwest has become the new stereotype. Too crowded, too corporate, too cliché: those are the ways we tend to talk about what’s become America’s biggest tripartite festival, which President Barack Obama will actually address today in person.
I’m in no position to argue, either. After going for six consecutive years, I finally gave up the annual pilgrimage a half-decade ago and haven’t regretted the decision once. March is more relaxing now.
One factor that assuages any possible guilt or FOMO-based anxiety is the Triangle’s situational geography. Every year, between late February and early April, bands from all over the world route tours toward or back from Texas through the Triangle or close to it. No, we won’t get the biggest names or the biggest gimmicks, but that never seemed to be the framers’ spirit for the festival, anyway. Tonight, for instance, British doom greats Conan stop at Kings, while the fanciful pop of Mass Gothic heads for Local 506. And last night, Brooklyn’s Big Thief—whose forthcoming May LP, Masterpiece
, is one of my favorite records of 2016—ventured beyond the customary Chapel Hill strip to play the Highway 54 roadside dive, The Kraken.
Under new ownership for the last year or so, The Kraken has increased its booking ambition considerably. Still, with perennial local favorites The Love Language headlining, this was a milestone night for the club, evidenced by the series of exclamation marks following the band names on the marquee. And on one of those perfect North Carolina nights situated directly between winter and spring, it felt special, too. People caroused in every part of the property—on the front porch and the outdoor patios, in the parking lot and in both main rooms of the club itself. When Big Thief took the small stage just after nine p.m., the garage door behind them remained open, with the members of The Love Language and their pals sitting on top of and around tour vans to take in the set. It reminded me of an indie rock retelling of The Outsiders, only friendlier.
This was the first night of a month-long tour for Big Thief, so things still felt a tad shaky. Adrianne Lenker couldn’t remember how to play one song late in the set, and some of her and Buck Meek’s guitar parts never quite connected with the rhythm section behind them, as though they were still sorting through some timing considerations.
For the most part, though, the several dozen of us crowded a few feet back from the band were mesmerized. On Masterpiece
, it’s clear how good of a singer Lenker is—she can caress one word only to split the next at the syllables. Onstage, though, it became obvious how good she is with a guitar, her phrases spider-webbed in a way that recalled The Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean. And then, during the pained and gorgeous “Real Love,”
she took a screeching, astringent solo that perfectly captured the emotional turmoil at which her lyrics only hint. By the end of “Parallels,” which closes Masterpiece
, I could have sworn that the crowd was resisting the urge to sing along to a simple, stunning hook that they’d never heard. Maybe that was just me.
Toward the middle of the set, Lenker explained that she’d like to cover a song that the band loved—the first song she and Meek had ever sung together, in fact. It was The Love Language gem “Stars,”
delivered as a charmingly unrehearsed a cappella duet. The moment was sweet and endearingly earnest, and it confirmed the lipstick traces of folk and country I knew I’d been hearing all over Masterpiece
. (Confirmed again here
, by their duo, no less!) It also made me thankful for skipping South by Southwest, where I assume Big Thief will play thirty seven shows in four days and not have much time for off-the-cuff covers of songs by local bands.
Driving home, I wondered if it would be preemptive to call Big Thief my favorite band of the festival.