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21st April 2023

Live review: Big Thief at Manchester’s O2 Apollo

Returning to Manchester with a second round of tour dates, the Brooklyn band dazzle fans with stunning renditions of their folk-rock masterpieces
Live review: Big Thief at Manchester’s O2 Apollo
Photo: Big Thief @ Mia Wilson

Big Thief‘s most recent album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is a timeless masterpiece of indie-folk talent. As a double EP, the album has everything you could need, from heartfelt explorations of human mortality and harrowing religious allegories to garlic bread and baked potatoes. The band is ever-evolving, continuously slipping in and out of different styles over the six years that they have been releasing music. Yet, they maintain their status as staples of the indie genre. 

Despite their extensive back-catalogue of hits, including one of Barack Obama’s self-proclaimed favourites, the setlist for this Manchester performance was as masterfully curated as their lyrical humour. They captivated the crowd with unreleased songs, enchanted with twists on their hits and even delighted with frontwoman Adrienne Lenker’s astounding solo work. 

Supporting the band, L’rain’s experimental collage of sounds echoes around the venue as anticipation buzzes among the mass of Big Thief’s dedicated fans. When the lights dim and the mismatched quartet emerge, a chorus of joy exudes from the audience. Dressed casually, the band’s very presence emanates authentic folk charm. 

They begin with ‘Change’ from Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. The heartfelt, contemplative guitar ballad ponders a range of life’s most unanswerable questions. The crowd are plunged straight into the depths of Big Thief’s emotional lyricism, an immersion from which there is no return. 

Slipping into ‘Certainty’, Adrianne Lenker stands out as the focal point of the performance. The extents of her talent know no end as she powerfully dedicates herself to both the song’s meditative lyrics and sensational guitar riffs. The track contemplates the cruelty of indecision, lyrics co-written by the divorced couple who comprise half of the band. Frontwoman Adrianne Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek collaborated during a power cut to write the introspective track, using a cigarette lighter to record it. The song’s organic creation, which feels incredibly synonymous with the album art, translates stunningly into their live performance, never losing the feeling of raw sincerity that it inspires. 

Photo: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You – Official Album Art

Opening with a tripartite of songs from their newest album, next ‘Blue Lightning’ has its moment to shine. Its simple but catchy lyrics and country beat beam from the band and they saturate the room with their playful whimsy. 

In a harsh juxtaposition, their descent into ‘Contact’ feels like a deliberate choice. They play on the temperamental nature of emotions. From their 2019 album U.F.O.F., the track’s brooding build-up reaches a climax only for Lenker’s periodic screams to intervene. What might have been a jarring experience is delivered so cathartically that, instead, it is hailed by the audience as a celebration of feminine rage. 

The crowd are as enraptured by Big Thief’s performance of ‘Not’, a song considered enigmatic enough by Barack Obama’s publicists to appear in his 2019 Songs of the Year playlist. Brimming with emotional resonance, its dizzying repetition returns to a chorus that has the room chanting in unity. Amid the band’s beloved releases, they also perform a series of new/unreleased songs. Mostly slower ballads, the room is enthralled, listening as intently as ever to Lenker’s emotional affirmations. 

Having also attended their previous gig at Manchester Academy in 2022, where none of Lenker’s own music appeared on the setlist, to realise the band are playing ‘Zombie Girl’ from her 2020 album songs is elating. The band’s cover adds uplifting life to the usually gentle acoustic song. Ending the planned setlist on their album’s eponymous ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’, they once again invert the sensation of a widely adored track. They furrow into the angst of their earlier albums to deliver a moodier rendition of the strikingly ethereal hit. The lyrics, which revere nature to a Wordsworthian extent, coincide with dramatic guitar reverberations and a steady drum beat to create a uniquely eerie atmosphere. 

For their encore, they sing ‘Spud Infinity’, and Lenker calls out her brother to join the performance. He contributes the song’s iconic jaw harp sounds. The country-inspired hit has the whole room dancing, ending the set on the most joyous high.

You can stream Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You below:

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