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21st May 2024

Adrianne Lenker live in Manchester: Beauty in simplicity from a generational talent

Big Thief frontperson Adrianne Lenker brought her solo show to Castlefield’s Aviva Studios, gifting the audience simple snippets of grace and serenity
Adrianne Lenker live in Manchester: Beauty in simplicity from a generational talent
Credit: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

Some music hits you as if you’ve got several fewer layers of skin and Adrianne Lenker is the master at conjuring up such emotional bullets. Lenker made her name as a member of the continually evolving indie folk outfit Big Thief. However, she goes it alone for the rawest side of her introspection and brought her solo show to Manchester’s Aviva Studios.

She returned to Manchester after the release of her sixth solo album Bright Future, and her third on 4AD. Deep in feeling yet never gratuitous, Adrianne Lenker’s music connects and soundtracks the lives of many students in Manchester, whether the gritty Americana-inspired rock of Big Thief’s early days or solo adventures deep into the psyche.

adrianne lenker
Credit: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

Turning off Deansgate and into an unknown corner of Manchester, it became very apparent that everyone in the area was there for the same thing. Factory International felt like Withington displaced; one fan declared the venue “an indie cruise ship.” Tickets sold out the day they went on sale, fans desperate to feel the full impact of Lenker’s music. The theatre stage was set up suspiciously simply, swamped by its sparsity. Two chairs, guitars, an upright piano and a footrest lay in the stage centre.

Introducing the evening was Queens-based Nick Hakim, collaborator of Adrianne Lenker and accomplished pianist. Hakim set the tone of pin-drop silence and minimalist setup, playing music that will please your ear, and break your heart. There was an immediate air of respect, the crowd behaving more like a theatre show rather than a gig.

At 9pm sharp, the unmistakable silhouette of Adrianne Lenker came from stage right to warm applause, and a grateful smile. Dressed in khaki, jeans, and cowboy boots, the aesthetic of the new album was communicated subtly, Lenker knowing that she doesn’t have to labour her aesthetic to get her point across.

adrianne lenker
Credit: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

Lenker invited us to commune with her, tuning up between songs sometimes in silence, sometimes while concurrently trying to tell a story, making the tuning process longer. Opening with “two reverse,” the opening track from the lockdown-created LP songs, the sound of Lenker’s live voice sent a shiver down my spine, anchoring me in the present moment.

Even the tunings sounded melodic and built atmosphere, previewing the makeup of the next song, easing us into tranquillity. Lenker was coy to applause, grateful for her beloved status, and outpouring emotion whenever she could. Keen to connect to Manchester, she shouted out her friend Bernie, who hosted Big Thief whenever they played in Manchester, which has been every year since 2016, except 2021.

Adrianne Lenker is familiar with the city, having climbed the venues with her band from Whitworth Street’s Gorilla to Ardwick’s vintage O2 Apollo. She even recalls cutting her hair short for the first time in Manchester, beginning a form of experimentation. The anecdote doesn’t feel told for social currency, or to benefit her, but instead to benefit the audience. Lenker wears her heart on her sleeve. Giggling at herself and tuning her guitar, we were swept along.

adrianne lenker
Credit: Anna Marsden @ The Mancunion

Lenker improvised the setlist in the moments up to taking the stage, developed with a mix of Big Thief songs, solo material, and covers. The hastily planned nature of the setlist meant Lenker captured something magnificent. Not weighing too heavily on new material, and treating the audience to a range of strumming and finger-picking patterns, the show never reached a crescendo or attempted to follow a narrative, but was just Lenker performing and being true. After the haunting and hushed ‘my angel’, Lenker was joined by Nick Hakim to play delicate keys.

We were all on the same side. After a silencing rendition of ‘zombie girl’, a cry to play it again from the audience was upheld, Hakim and Lenker slowing it and encouraging the audience to sing. Sniffles became part of the chorus, a collective tear forming from the stunning, self-resolving track.

Finishing off with a reworked version of Big Thief favourite ‘Vampire Empire’ with an added rendition of ‘Like a Rose’ by Lucinda Williams, a standing ovation brought the duo back on. The spacious ‘Real House’ became an overlapping fingerpicked delight, and finally, Lenker’s yearning for “anything” saw us home. It could have gone on forever, and it would have never been long enough in the company of Adrianne Lenker.

Witnessing Adrianne Lenker connected art to artist; Lenker is a profound poet, but on seeing her vulnerability live, you can see she’s just as human as us, as music-obsessed as us. Lenker possesses the gift of being able to express this in perfect poetic clarity, in a haunting poetic voice. Bob Dylan went electric and lost fans, but when Lenker goes acoustic, we gain a hell of a lot of understanding.

Alex Cooper

Alex Cooper

Head Music Editor and Writer for the Mancunion. Once walked past Nick Cave in Zagreb. Enquiries: [email protected]

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