There are positives and pitfalls to being bashful.
On one hand, you don’t wear out your welcome. But timidity can turn the room red with discomfort, so Big Thief asked for the softest blue lights they could get in between many of the wonderful songs they performed last night at the Cedar Cultural Center. And frontwoman Adrianne Lenker didn’t want to be underneath an intense spotlight.
No onstage uneasiness disturbed the performances themselves. You don’t go see a band like Big Thief for the stage show, after all -- you go for the songwriting. But if the soft vulnerability of songs like “Mythological Beauty” blanketed the audience in a layer of warmth, the awkward banter afterward often made it feel as if someone had ripped the covers off.
“Shark Smile” is a typically teasing Big Thief song. Its fast-paced kick-drum grooves contrast with the intimacy of Lenker’s strong whisper, and Buck Meek’s high-pitched guitar tones squealed their way through the solo, matching the passion of the singing. “Capacity,” the title track from the band’s most recent album, is mostly just two chords vamping, adorned by a gorgeous five-note guitar solo from Meek. It’s easy to get lost in the rhythm and then realize that four minutes have suddenly passed.
A Midwestern feeling looms over Big Thief’s music. Their label is the Omaha-based Saddle Creek, and songs on Capacity mention Des Moines and Niswah, Minnesota. In fact, Lenker herself grew up in the Twin Cities area. “I’ve been wanting to play here since I was fourteen,” she said of the Cedar mid-set. “I used to do open mics around here.”
During louder songs, the snare sound was too hot, and the bass was hardly present at all. Fortunately, Lenker and Meek towered over the mix when they needed to. Lenker wailed her way through the third phrase of “Mythological Beauty” with a passionate clarity. Even if you didn’t know the songs that well, she made sure you could hear the words.
Toward the end, when the awkwardness between songs had intensified, Meek interrupted a long silence with a “thank you” honest enough to get the whole crowd cheering. For an encore, Lenker graced us with not one, but four extra songs with just her and a guitar. The moving rendition of “Pretty Things” that closed out the evening communicated more directly than anything she said onstage.
The crowd: Eager, responsive, and quiet enough to have Adrianne Lenker thanking us.
Overheard in the crowd: Very little. Captivation all around.
Random notebook dump: I could probably have listened to just Lenker and her guitar for another thirty minutes.