Big Thief are back on the road, and the indie rockers’ popularity continues growing as they’ve sold out the Berkeley Greek Theater here on Tuesday, 8 August. The quartet’s return to the Bay Area follows a pair of shows in May of last year at the Fox Theater in Oakland, where they made a sensational impression in support of 2022’s ambitious double album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. The album made many lists for Top 5 or Top 10 albums of the year, as the depth and diversity of the songs revealed a band at a creative high water mark.
U.F.O.F. (2019) was also an intriguing record, with vocalist/guitarist Adrianne Lenker singing of relating to a “UFO friend” in the sky. She seems like a sensitive and compassionate empath in many of her songs, so it wouldn’t be surprising if she and Earth’s hipper ET visitors were drawn to one another. The Oakland shows were also a revelation for those who hadn’t caught the band in action before, with Lenker morphing into a multi-dimensional light warrior as she powered the music to an even higher level with some incendiary lead guitar on hot jams.
The Brooklyn-based quartet clearly have long-time chemistry with guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia all seeming highly attuned to Lenker’s dynamic frequency. The current tour finds Big Thief teaming up with influential Americana artist Lucinda Williams, who’s continuing an impressive comeback from a stroke that sidelined her in 2020.
Williams opens with an hour-long set that finds the 70-year-old singer-songwriter’s voice in fine form. She can’t play guitar again yet, but she’s got a solid band together that delivers a crisp sound even up on the Greek’s lawn area. “Rock N Roll Heart” from her new album is an upbeat winner as she sings about the spiritual power of rock ‘n’ roll. “Changed the Locks” is another highlight, which she dedicates to Tom Petty, who covered it in 1996. It’s a touching moment for local fans who last saw Petty in action right here at the Greek in August of 2017. The hard-edged blues of “Joy” from 1998’s breakthrough album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road brings the set to a rocking conclusion with some stellar slide guitar over a hot groove as Williams sings of how she will get her stolen joy back.
When Big Thief hit the stage a half hour later, it’s easy to see that there’s a full house with the pit area looking particularly packed. Opening with the title track from 2016’s Masterpiece album seems to get the set off to a solid start until Lenker is forced to stop the band due to a fan having an issue (passing out?) up front and needing assistance. Then it happens again two songs later during “Certainty”, which halts the show’s momentum again. Things continue going strangely when the band has to stop a third time within the first half hour for the same reason.
What makes the situation particularly odd is how it’s become a typically chilly and somewhat foggy night in the Berkeley hills, far from a hot sunny day that might be expected to cause hydration issues. The only explanation seems to be that too many fans have packed themselves into the pit area, leaving little in the way of elbow room with less space to breathe.
Big Thief do their best to carry on, teaming with Williams for a couple of her songs with the bluesy country vibe of “People Talkin” and the upbeat “Metal Firecracker”. The harmonies between Williams and Lenker are splendid, winning numerous cheers. After Williams exits the stage, Lenker speaks to how much Wlliams’ music has meant to her through the years and plays one more of her songs with “Minneapolis”.
“Forgotten Eyes” from 2019’s Two Hands album is a heartfelt gem that gets the show moving back in a Big Thief direction as Lenker sings of how “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection”, a sentiment that American politics could use much more of. “Contact” from U.F.O.F. pairs nicely coming from the band’s other 2019 album, as they move into a more mystical dream space before the song builds with a powerful crescendo. The quarter is building energy now and keeps going with Dragon’s “Simulation Swarm”, featuring the kind of laid-back yet infectious type of mid-tempo groove that Big Thief specialize in.
Big Thief take further advantage of the collaboration with Lucinda Williams by bringing her guitarists Doug Pettibone and Stuart Mathis back out on pedal steel and fiddle to add extra enhancement to the impassioned “Not” and the new “Vampire Empire”. Lenker’s brother Noah then joins in as well on jaw harp for the jubilant “Spud Infinity”, as he did last year at the Fox in Oakland to help the band provide a triumphant finish to the set on one of the top tracks from Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You.
“Spud Infinity” also features some of Adrianne Lenker’s most endearing lyrics, such as when she sings, “What’s it gonna take? / To free the celestial body? / When I say celestial, I mean extra-terrestrial / I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart.” Is Lenker once again hinting at her ET contact experiences and heritage? Or is she just getting at how easy it is to feel alienated in this crazy world? She certainly has an endearingly earthy sensibility about her, which she touches further on when she implores listeners to embrace their own foibles and “Kiss the one you are right now”.
The encore sequence concludes with the introspective “Change”, the opening track from Dragon on which Lenker sings existential musings on the constant of impermanence. It’s been a very different vibe from what fans experienced in Oakland last year as the early stops and starts seem to have hurt the set’s momentum, with Big Thief never really finding the flow that led to some great improv where Lenker showed what a force she can be on guitar. But the team-ups with Williams and her guitarists have also given this Greek show some uniquely memorable moments.
Ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll is an untamed beast that cannot always be directed at a band’s whim. In the Black Crowes‘ 1992 classic “Wiser Time”, Chris Robinson sang, “On a good day, it’s not every day, We can part the sea, And on a bad day, it’s not every day, Glory beyond our reach…” It doesn’t feel like tonight’s show has quite reached the glory of last year’s appearance in Oakland, yet Big Thief will no doubt have many more glorious nights ahead with the new warm dragon and UFO friends they’ve unleashed on a planet that needs all the otherworldly sonic therapy it can get.