"We're gonna play for three hours," Adrianne Lenker announced as Big Thief took the stage at the High Noon Saloon last Monday night. She sounded almost apologetic about it, informing us we were free to leave before the end without feeling bad. As Monday night turned into Tuesday morning, a few folks even took her up on it—perhaps people who had Fourth of July events the next day to attend, or else more casual Big Thief fans for whom nearly 40 songs was a little too much of a good thing. The vast majority stayed, though, likely aware that they were witnessing a gig that will go down in hushed tones—among the few hundred who saw it, at least—as something downright legendary. The Cure and Springsteen-type artists aside, the only real antecedent I can recall off the top of my head (though I'm sure there are others) is that one time when Screaming Females played their first four albums in a row in a New Brunswick basement.
Big Thief's own marathon show was not nearly so orderly as all that—something Lenker drew attention to at one point, noting a total unfamiliarity with the ins and outs of putting together a Springsteen-esque setlist. She and her bandmates also had to contend with the fact that Big Thief as a project is only a couple of years old, with a mere two albums under their belt thus far. The fact that those albums are both stacked front-to-back with classic songs doesn't hurt, of course, and they formed the main foundation of the evening's music. Incendiary takes on Masterpiece gems "Real Love" and "Humans," two of the most aggressive tracks in the band's catalogue, were high points that drew fervent rounds of applause for both Lenker's and Buck Meek's extended guitar work. The songs from follow-up album Capacity, a slightly quieter, more atmospheric affair of a record on balance ("Shark Smile" and the title track aside), didn't have the same sort of knockdown effect, but they nevertheless sounded rich and full live, from the shimmering country rock of "Black Diamonds" to Lenker's elegantly finger-picked rendition of "Pretty Words." Performances like these suggested that, on any normal night, Big Thief is likely to be one of the best live bands around.
This night, though, they approached transcendence as they repeatedly took multi-song excursions into newer and older material alike. The latter—many drawn, as I would find out later in the set, from the albums Lenker and Meek recorded prior to forming Big Thief—tended toward a lighter, more wistful sensibility while still retaining a gift for surprising, emotionally complex turns of phrase. A tune called "Angels" in particular is an absolute stunner, and a song I'm glad exists in a studio version, allowing it to further insinuate itself into my head over the past few days. I doubt any of these will become concert staples at any point in the future; there are simply too many great, well known songs recorded under the Big Thief moniker. So it was a treat to see them dusted off for this rare occasion, and to witness the ways in which Lenker has developed as a songwriter in such a short time.
The new cuts—though I could not tell you most of their names at this point, aside from "Orange" and "Shoulders," which have been available to hear on NPR Music's YouTube channel for some time now—provided even more proof of that. One early song was (along with Capacity's "Haley" and Masterpiece's "Lorraine") among the most straightforward, sweetly country-sounding tracks Lenker has written to date, built around a gorgeously loping refrain about dreaming. Others had a sense of edge and menace more characteristic of the first half of Capacity, with a number of references to jealousy and violence creeping into the picture. Few modern bands do variations in subject matter, tone, and musical timbre quite so well, and let's just say they show no signs of losing that ability any time in the near future. Their third record, whenever it arrives, already seems all but certain to continue their streak of top-10 quality album releases.
As the evening wore on, the odd, seemingly off-the-cuff nature of the setlist continued to be apparent. Rather than saving "Masterpiece" for the very end, the band delivered a raucous rendition of their signature track before diving into a few more deep cuts, plus a cover for good measure. Placing "Mother," a beautiful non-album song whose chorus must be at the very top of Lenker's vocal range, near the end of a such a lengthy set made for some endearingly awkward moments on stage as she attempted to wrap her somewhat tired voice around the notes. After a couple stumbles, she did, performing the rest of the song flawlessly. Another new song and a stirring rendition of Capacity lead single "Mythological Beauty" followed, and with that, the night's magnificent, zig-zagging journey through Big Thief's songbook had finally reached its end. And Madison, Wisconsin, a place already responsible for one of my favorite concert memories, had just given me another one to treasure for a long, long time.