Written by Walker Price, photos by Mia Call.
Early Tuesday night, before dusk had even settled, a swarm of people had amassed outside of the Greek Theater, buzzing with excitement for the evening that awaited them on the other side of the security checkpoint. What awaited, of course, was the Berkeley leg of legendary country songwriter Lucinda Williams’ joint tour with indie darlings Big Thief, whose sprawling double-lp Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, out on 4ad, cemented them as a household name early last year. As sunlight began to falter, Williams’ band strode onto the stage, quickly providing a visual explanation to the unaware the equal ratio of gay college students to their parents. Williams, still recovering from 2020’s stroke, walked on just after them, aided by event staff. She quickly launched into a pair of songs from her new album, Stories From a Rock N Roll Heart, which paled in comparison to the songs that followed, a carefully curated list of gut-wrenchingly nostalgia-inducing songs for anyone with two ears and a beating heart. Williams dedicated her third song to the late Tom Petty, with a brief lamentation following it. Later, when Williams revealed that the song on deck had been written for Blaze Foley, another now-passed friend of Williams, at which point she took more time to express her sorrow for both musicians’ passing, as well as to speak to the importance of loving one’s friends and relishing in the time those relationships hold. Williams’ penultimate song, “Joy,” is a staple of her discography, and brought about a noticeable buzz excitement from the crowd whose energy level up to that point was mostly on par with that of a DMV line, with a fair amount more smoke emissions. The band closed with “Honey Bee,” a vaguely raunchy, twangy song that crescendoed the band and the crowd in one, leaving everyone excited for the half-hour wait that ensued before Big Thief began.
Big Thief, a band that was once remarked on as a band that ‘doesn’t dress like people’ walked on to a very (relatively) excited throng of adoring fans. They began the set with “Masterpiece,” which they abruptly stopped about halfway through due to a fainting in the very-still pit. This happened a handful of more times throughout the set, each time both performers and audience expressing a genuine concern for the wellbeing of those around them. The band played two more songs, both beautiful, before bringing back out Lucinda Williams to play a pair of songs from the Louisiana native’s catalog – before and after which Adrienne Lenker took the time to express her awe and reverence for the pure experience thereof. So much so, in fact, that after Williams left the stage, Lenker played a lone acoustic cover of “Minneapolis,” a song she claimed connection to due to her Minnesotan roots. As the set went on, the blonde-to-bright-blue lake placid that stood before the band stood almost silent, mouths agape, moving, but close to no noise able to impose upon the overpowering folksy bombast. At the advent of the band’s alleged final song, they brought out Lenker’s brother, whose jaw harp reveal brought about actual whoops from the crowd (including myself). Nothing but “Spud Infinity” could come next. Lenker opened the song slowly, wordlessly, before the entire band abruptly jumped in and hastened the rootsy track’s pace. In the middle of it, they became a full-on jam band, holding space for each musician – including the two guitarists from Williams’ band who had jumped on pedal steel and fiddle – to play a little solo. Not often does one watch a band shred on a song like that.
While applause roared, the band neglected to even perform the charade of leaving the stage to await the demands of an encore, they just waited like forty-five seconds. Their three-song encore ended with a subdued rendition of “Change,” DNWMIBIY’s opener, during which Lenker remarked: ‘you all sound beautiful tonight.’ A statement which, of course, concertgoers felt compelled to reciprocate, but the sentiment remained intact, emblematic of the ethos of the show and, truly, the band itself. Big Thief is a band that expands beyond its own confines, encompassing not only the four-piece’s members, but those who partake as listeners, acting as more than simply passive enjoyers of pretty songs. Big Thief is an experience, one that you, an audience member, have the power to shape.