Playing their first of three consecutive dates in the Bay Area, Brooklyn indie-rock band Big Thief and supporting indie-folk act Little Wings came to Berkeley on Thursday night, playing an emotional concert at no cost to students. Located in Anna Head Alumnae Hall with a low-level stage and low-key lighting, the atmosphere was intimate and perfectly conducive to the humility of the performers and the relaxed joy in the audience. Although the hall was about half-full throughout the night, the smaller show was filled with pleasant swaying and an attentive audience, many of whom have likely followed the band since their humble beginnings back in 2015. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised (and excited) to hear that two groups so expressive yet generally out of the spotlight were coming to our campus.
Little Wings, led by lo-fi folk cult musician Kyle Field, opened with a uniquely buoyant performance that introduced a pleasant atmosphere. The four-piece was one of the most unpretentious live bands I’ve ever experienced (all wearing plain t-shirts and blue jeans, playing a lo-fi mix of soft rock and alt-country); yet despite this plain look, the performance was playful and engagingly odd. Unlike the minimalist sketches of their records (notably 2002’s whimsical Light Green Leaves, from which many of this set’s songs originated), their revamped songs were more fleshed out with the trademarked country sound of lap steel guitar and steady drums. Despite the feeling that the band was likely new to most of the audience, the unabashed goofiness of their presence and lyrics was met with equally relaxed joy from the crowd. As Field peppered the otherwise straightforward performance with loose rock tropes of punching up into the air and awkwardly kicking his legs to the beat, the crowd moved with an admittedly subtle, but welcoming enthusiasm. Occasionally, Field added a mouth-pop sound effect or a short screech, which in most other groups would be unusual, but fit right in amongst the quirky performance. Right before the closing song, Field told the crowd, “don’t quit on yourself.” I still don’t quite know what that means, even in context, but the crowd seemed to happily absorb the positive energy.
In stark contrast to Little Wings’ playfulness, Big Thief started their set quietly, with two hushed solo songs from vocalist/guitarist Adrianne Lenker. It was a distinctly subtle way to begin, setting the precedent of quiet vulnerability for the rest of the night. Accompanied by careful support from the bass and drums, Lenker played patiently with her eyes closed, sometimes leaving seconds in between strums to breathe, and delivered her melodies with a sweet, yet pained, timbre. The weariness in her voice has worked beautifully with the somber yearning of her band’s two records, Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017) and the melancholy was even more expressive in person. She even gently acknowledged this weary energy, candidly talking to the crowd about their long drive from LA and their exhaustion: “I was thinking, ‘How am I going to play today?’”
Yet this expressed exhaustion only emphasized the most emotive aspects of their sound. Not only were the quiet sections of their performance nakedly vulnerable, their crescendos and louder surges were powerful and sweeping. As Lenker slowly built energy through defeated lyrics (“there is a child inside you who’s trying to raise a child in me”), the drums and bass patiently waited for the right moments to catalyze the emotional wave with dense pulses of support. These dynamic waves resonated well with the audience, with many singing along at emotional heights, and standing attentive and still at the night’s more pensive moments. Fan-favorite “Real Love” from Masterpiece was particularly captivating with Lenker’s solo guitar work, channeling a rare use of distortion not as an aggressive display of power, but rather as a raw summoning of a gritty ugliness to exemplify the unfettered vulnerability within the performance. The song’s climax was one of the night’s most emotionally potent: “Real love makes your lungs black.”
The darkness of the performance was paired with subtle humility from the performers. Lenker stood only half facing the audience at the side of the stage, her eyes closed and body still as she played, and the whole band was lightly cast in simple lighting, almost all in darkness. Each song ended without dramatic codas and gave way to a comfortable silence, usually filled soon after by quiet guitar tuning or casual conversation to the audience. At times, even the drummer and bassist seemed unsure of how long they would continue pausing between beats and songs, but the air was patient and accepting. The audience was just as in tune, with two members even offering to hold their phones to light up the stage as the band took a few minutes to tweak their lighting and sound setup.
Lenker’s comments to the audience were refreshingly plain and honest, acknowledging responses after asking what songs we wanted to hear, and even asking if anyone in the crowd wanted to play: “No, seriously.” Lenker’s welcoming attitude stood out further with compliments of Berkeley upon their first show here, saying it “smells like sage and pine needles,” as well as confirming that they ate at our very own Crossroads, impressively without making a single slightly negative comment. Even after a guitar string broke, she calmly added, “this is maybe one of the strangest shows, but in a good way,” before tuning a different guitar and continuing the show. “Shows can be deeply nourishing on the harder days, and this is one of those days.”
The band closed their beautifully vulnerable performance with a dynamic version of their most popular song, “Paul,” much to the excitement of the softly swaying fans in the crowd. After a night of calm humility, it felt appropriate that the band ended the show by complimenting and thanking local opener Julian Carpenter, who started the night with an appropriately warm and pleasant performance, setting the stage well for the emotional comfort of Little Wings and Big Thief. Everyone seemed to walk out of Anna Head a little bit more grateful.
Written by Dylan Medlock
Photos by Cindy Chou