Big Thief might be the best band in the world right now.
If that seems hyperbolic, let’s look at their resume. They just released an instant classic that levels up their previous four great albums (not to mention a strong solo catalog from the band’s individual members) to an echelon not previously considered likely, with February’s Dragon New Warm Mountain, I Believe In You. They are using their mixture of full-band and solo recordings to build something of a mythos, an extended Big Thief universe that feels particularly rooted in the present time and place, where many of the current commercial reaches of their peers are sidelined in favor art that’s as indebted to classic rock tropes as it is to contemporary indie sensibilities. And through their live show, they are incorporating both the malleability of jam bands and the confidence of arena behemoths, making for sets that are unpredictable and intimate, even as the rooms swell in size.
Sure, maybe The War On Drugs currently has a firmer grip on the crown with tighter live performances and bigger sonic statements. But that could easily be countered by the POV of Adrianne Lenker, whose complexity and fluidity feel in tune with present-day youth culture in ways that the biggest rock bands of recent decades never have. Regardless, this isn’t meant to put Big Thief in competition with anyone. Big Thief simply have no current peers, forging a path that’s exciting because no band has ever quite attempted what they’ve been doing, both on record and as a live entity. They are one-of-one, as essential as they come.
On Wednesday night at the Wiltern, that specialness wasn’t exactly underscored from the jump. Big Thief began their performance pretty tamely, starting the same way their current album does, with the spare, gorgeous “Change.” The show let that laid-back vibe simmer for several songs, including a miniature suite of new tunes “Wanted You To Stay” and “Sadness Is A Gift” (another rule of being the best band in the world: you are always looking forward, much like Animal Collective in the aughts or The National in the 2010s). The night felt like a slow-moving escalator, with Meek and Lenker’s considered harmonies playing off each other perfectly in a theater that could pick up on their nuances.
And then, with Dragon‘s biggest semi-hit, “Certainty,” the show opened up on itself. The cut found increased tension and release than its album counterpart, turning the acoustic arrangement into the most rocking moment of the night, at least at that point. At its conclusion, Lenker switched from her trusty acoustic to an electric guitar (and even went through a bit of a wardrobe change to complement the instrument change-up), signaling a second act full of boldness and intensity. Songs like Capacity‘s “Black Diamonds” and Dragon‘s title track were transformed into robust statements that could sit comfortably next to the expansive “Not,” their best song, and probably the best song by anyone in the past decade.
This hits on yet another aspect of Big Thief that makes them so great: their live show manages to transform the songs you know into something not just different, but often better. Heck, the band even found the space to morph a couple of Lenker solo tunes into Big Thief statements on Wednesday night. If anything, the band’s gentle soul and unassuming nature might be holding it back a tad. They concluded the concert with receding energy, allowing the audience to drift back into the night, rather than leaving with the exhilarated feeling of the show’s middle act.
For all they’ve accomplished over the past few years, from Grammy nominations to what’s likely to be a year-end-list topping 2022 release, it’s exciting to think that there is still room for growth and improvement. Some bands might add visual components or backing instruments to the fold, but there’s also the sense that Big Thief might lose something if they went down this road, messing with a perfect formula. But knowing the option is there, that Big Thief could only be scraping the surface, just shows how much they are operating on another level right now.