The indie-folk rockers brought their best to the sold-out crowd at the Ryman Auditorium on February 7th.
It’s always a telling thing when the crowd starts applauding in response to a song’s opening guitar chord, but it’s another thing when it happens during nearly every single song of an eighty-minute performance. Hot off two GRAMMY nominations (best alternative music performance for “Certainty” and best alternative album for Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You), Big Thief made their stop in Nashville on a cold Tuesday night at the storied Ryman Auditorium.
As the second run of shows for their critically acclaimed 2022 LP, this tour was met with immense anticipation from fans old and new alike. Online buzz surrounding the band’s early shows of the leg was promising, with many praising the members’ fine-tuned cohesiveness and highlighting the unpredictability of the setlist from night to night. In an effort to “bring an educational component to the touring process,” the band also invited educators and students to attend soundchecks during this tour and encouraged prospective attendees to bring ideas to make the experience as creative and constructive as possible.
Twain, the alias of multi-instrumentalist Mat Davidson – making his first of many appearances of the evening – opened up the show with an acoustic set with minimal breaks between songs, setting the tone for the night and placing the music, over everything, front and center. The band kept things in-house as Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek and his accompanying four-piece band took the stage next, ramping up the energy and crowd’s anticipation with a few cuts from the fan-favorite a-sides and b-sides collaborative EPs with Adrianne Lenker.
The main act took its time taking the stage and came out with the first track off Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, “Change,” which received immediate applause and cheers from the opening notes. The band went straight into “12,000 Lines,” after which Lenker paused for her first bit of stage banter for the night. “It’s nice to be in such a curved place,” she quipped, gesturing toward the Ryman’s balcony and eliciting scattered laughs from the crowd. The sparse–but charmingly honest–comments would continue throughout the night, with Lenker saying “I wrote a setlist and I’m looking at it like…wow, I was in an interesting mood!’ following the fan favorite “Cattails” a few songs later.
The band’s chemistry was on full display with the performance of “Red Moon,” the song’s first appearance on a setlist of this tour, as exhibit A. Mat Davidson, who opened as Twain, joined the headliners on stage numerous times to provide fiddle accompaniment and the occasional solo. “Red Moon” brought the crowd to its feet, with drummer James Krivchenia and Lenker trading solos, and Lenker bursting into a show-stopping whistling passage toward the tail end of the song.
Big Thief gave fans much to look forward to as well, performing a total of five unreleased songs throughout the set–the first of which was titled “Sadness as a Gift,” followed immediately by a song I will be anxiously waiting on, “Free Treasure.” After a flawless performance from Lenker accompanied by soothing Buck Meek harmonies, she cracked jokes about her fear of stage diving, pitching a “gentle stage dive to a solo song” as an alternative to the rowdy and treacherous leaps taken by rock bands at massive music festivals.
“Forgotten Eyes” came next, the first song of the night off 2019’s Two Hands. But, in my opinion, the moment that followed it captured the beauty of a Big Thief show like no other: Lenker jumped into the opening guitar melody of “Shark Smile” to raucous applause, played a few bars, then stepped away from the microphone abruptly, signaled to the band to restart, and announced, “Sorry, it’s not right.” The band didn’t seem to make any noticable mistakes, so I took this to be a display of maturity and internal adjustment that only comes from a seasoned performer. Whatever it was, the crowd took no issue with it; whoops and calls of “We love you!” ensued, to which Lenker simply smiled, stepped up to the microphone again, and delivered an impeccable performance of one of Big Thief’s biggest hits to date. The band kept the heavy hitters coming, flowing directly into “Not,” which spotlighted an impressive, lengthy guitar solo from Lenker, rife with shredding passages and plenty of cheers in response.
After two Dragon tracks, “Simulation Swarm” and “Flower of Blood,” and the unreleased, upbeat, acoustic “Happy With You,” the quartet brought out Mat Davidson and Lenker’s brother, Noah (who regularly works the merch booth on tour) to play the jaw harp on “Spud Infinity,” a fun-filled crowd pleaser. Before playing the set’s closing song (aside from the encore, of course), Lenker shared a memorable bit of transparent conversation with the crowd, expressing gratitude for the fans’ energy, and once again commenting on the historic venue: “I don’t know what to make of this whole place, but I feel like this is really something.”
The frontwoman also opened up about the occasional inability to tap into performances due to the grueling touring cycles the band has become accustomed to, claiming: “We’re just making our way, figuring it out one moment at a time.” In this vein, the song that followed was the unreleased “Happiness,” which Lenker said helps her during difficult stretches of travel. She went on to describe the track as a “a car wash” for the days that feel comparable to when your car accumulates all the salt from the iced-over roadways on snowy days in the northeast, an image that likely only a handful of Nashvillians could relate to, but a deeply touching one nonetheless. “Happiness,” a mellow song that perfectly pairs Lenker’s delicate timbre with swinging Buck Meek electric guitar riffs and James Krivchenia’s calm, steady drumming, was beloved by the 2000+ fans in attendance.
When the band finally departed the stage with nothing more than a brief wave, immediate chants for an encore commenced–complete with hollers and clamorous thumping of hands on the Ryman’s wooden pews. Big Thief emerged after a few minutes to close the night with the unreleased “Vampire Empire,” which has been widley circulated by fans on TikTok, and the Adrianne Lenker solo track “zombie girl,” from her acclaimed 2020 album songs. A reverberant standing ovation sent the band off for the second time, and the collective smiles, along with feelings of elation and star-struck awe, seeped through every exit row of the Ryman Auditorium as the fans departed.
February 7, 2023 will be the night I remember as one of the times I witnessed a truly generational talent. I know I can’t be the only one in attendance that night that feels the same way – after all, leaving a Big Thief show thinking “Wow, that was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen” is a fairly universal experience I’ve heard voiced by longtime fans and friends who came along for the free ticket alike. What the Brooklyn-based band has in store next is unknown, but the mastery, authenticity, and ingenuity inherent to their craft that make their shows so special will surely continue to lend itself to highly-anticipated future projects. Whether it’s new music or additional shows after the summer leg of tour beginning in July, you can be sure that I’ll be anxiously awaiting what Big Thief has to offer next.
Listen to the Grammy-nominated Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You here: