Big Thief

support Ithaca
author LF date 11/03/20 venue Store Vega, Copenhagen, DEN

In these times when shows are canceled or postponed left and right because of the coronavirus, I was somewhat surprised that Vega managed to keep this evening's event with Big Thief in Store Vega on by inventively dividing it into two shows on the same day - a kind of matinee show as well as a late evening one. I have been looking forward to it, not least because of the intriguing idea of having a melodic hardcore band open for a headliner whose quiet country-tinged dynamics make for a wholly different artistic output. Unfortunately, the splitting of the show means that the Brits in Ithaca will only open the first of the two, with the late one featuring a new support set by Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek and his solo output. Luckily, everything falls into place, despite the new early start, and we manage to arrive just in time for the sonic mayhem that has just begun flowing from the confines of the stage.

All pictures by Peter Troest

Ithaca

Despite hearing their name pop up repeatedly since the release of their debut album "The Language of Injury" last year, I haven't had the chance to really dive into Ithaca's music yet. This support set, though, definitely sends them rocketing up to the top of my to-do list as they completely own the space for the full 30 minutes they play for us. The dissonant and forceful riffs are underpinned by heavy, menacing bass and drums, and their vocalist, Djamila Azzouz, growls rabidly and intermittently drops to the floor or headbangs to great effect. Her clean singing almost disappears in the mix for a good part of the set, though, but that is really the only element that I wish was changed about it. The rest of the band bang their bodies, kick and mill around the stage when it suits the music, and all the while the audience looks on in what seems to be mostly disbelief. While some hardcore hammers on until it becomes just a mush of noise to me, I appreciate how Ithaca embrace the noise but also take time to vary their loudness and mix in breaks and progressive elements in their aggression. They lose not an inch of intensity all the while and I find myself drawn into their somewhat disturbing world completely.

About ten minutes in, their guitarist/vocalist, Sam Chetan-Welsh, who has been mostly staring out at us with manic, wide eyes and a sour expression on his glitter-covered face, greets the audience with a warm thanks to Big Thief for the opportunity to play these shows. He comments that he knows they are not what an unprepared Big Thief audience might expect, and this draws a few laughs from around the room, but it also seems to open up most of the alienated audience members who get better at cheering the band on throughout the show. This is followed by the forceful "Youth vs Wisdom" which really stands out to me with its headbang-inducing chorus. During the last song, which I seem to recognize as possibly "Impulse Crush", the Big Thief bandmembers who by the way have been watching the set in front of the stage, cheerfully mosh around a little bit, but that's the most action we see on the floor throughout. Even though this has not been a typical hardcore show in this regard, Ithaca still put on a great show of force and seem to successfully pull in some new listeners who might not normally stray to these kinds of hard-hitting musical grounds.

8

Big Thief

I have been a fan of the Brooklyn NY-based indie rock group Big Thief since their release of the album “Capacity” in 2017 but since then, they have added two more albums to their discography, “U.F.O.F.” and “Two Hands”, both released in 2019. This is dubbed the “Two Hands Tour”, and while songs from that album take up a third of the setlist, we are also treated to about as many new and unreleased ones. The band take the stage and start off with the gut-punching yet sweet “Real Love”, that has a lot of trademark delicate guitar pickings and of course vocalist and guitarist Adrienne Lenker’s incredibly present and yet so frail, quivering singing squarely at the center of their sound. Make no mistake, they are still loud and their songs communicate strongly from the very first note. Somewhat connected to the band that went before them tonight, Lenker takes charge of the distorted, noisy ending of the first song, and the grittier vibe remains in the way the next couple of songs are played, to my delight.

It’s impossible not to mention the lyrics when talking about Big Thief, because more than anything, to me they represent a strong storytelling tradition, led flawlessly by Lenker and her multifaceted expressions. The 2019-song “Shoulders” thus summons a tear in my eye, even though it is only the second song of the evening, with her delivery of fatalistic, desperate lines like ”The blood of the man who is killing my mother with his hands is in me / It’s in me / In my veins”. I’ll refrain from repeating the quotes in my review of their 2017 Copenhagen show, but overall their country-tinged music and lyrical universe play together immensely well to create a sort of mystical vision of what it’s like to grow up and live a life in the USA. To me, this vision is what connects all their songs and tonight as well, the red thread through the show is fully intact.

The warm sounds of the majestic “Masterpiece” and the chugging-along “Shark Smile” spread good vibes and get the audience swaying all over, but both of them are sped up a bit and feel somewhat clouded by the added backing vocals from the band, that dominate Lenker’s more quiet contribution. I had really expected songs like those to mark the culmination of the show for me, but instead it happens when Lenker plays us two songs solo while the band sits back. The first is a new one, but the other one is “The Toy” and her performance in both of them has a completely disarming effect as the room feels quiet in complete reverence. It’s a fine art that’s hard to pin down but Lenker is just so good at making every word hit home in an entirely seamless manner, like the chords and the stories just breathe through her somehow.

The finishing four songs all ride on this energy. First is the soft ballad “Paul”, then the groovy and grounded “Not”, followed by the flowing of “Forgotten Eyes”, and finally “Cattails” with the finger-picking acoustic guitar and cutesy lyrics. The varying dynamics embrace us and the whole venue feels carried along on the same wave, which is perhaps also why when the encore consisting of one new song is done, the show feels like it has stopped abruptly. I suspect that the setlist has perhaps been shortened slightly because of the splitting of the original show, which would be entirely understandable, but in reality it is also always refreshing to witness a band this good leaving us only wanting more.

Setlist:

  • 1. Real Love
  • 2. Shoulders
  • 3. Masterpiecee
  • 4. Shark Smile
  • 5. Capacity
  • 6. Bruiser (new unreleased song)
  • 7. Those Girls
  • 8. Dried Roses (new unreleased song)
  • 9. Time Escaping (Adrienne Lenker solo - new unreleased song)
  • 10. The Toy (Adrienne Lenker solo)
  • 11. Paul
  • 12. Not
  • 13. Forgotten Eyes
  • 14. Cattails

— Encore —

  • 15. Happiness (new unreleased song)

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