One of the final bands to play Newtown Social Club, Big Thief did the venue a justice they didn’t know it deserved

Late last year while on my way to work, I can remember scrolling through my social media news feed and coming to the realisation that another year had passed on by.

The gaudy decorations and brazenly terrible Christmas carol covers hadn’t done their job. Rather, it was the sudden arrival of all those “best of 2016” lists that tore through my subconscious and heralded the beginning of the end.

As I meandered through those lists I kept coming across Brooklyn band Big Thief. They were one of those bands I had noticed, if I remember correctly it was due to them signing with iconic Midwestern label Saddle Creek Records, but hadn’t spent any substantial time with.

One of the best decisions I made that year, in its dying months, was to correct that. I hit play on their track Paul and was enamoured from that point on.

big thief newtown social club 2017

Practiced, emotive and resplendent beyond their age, Big Thief tore open the heart and soul of Newtown Social club last Wednesday night.

Fast forward a couple of months and I am here to report to you about their first trip to Australian shores. As I entered the venue for the first time since it was announced that Newtown Social Club would be closing its doors, I was filled with nostalgia and a touch of melancholy.

Sydney opener Body Type compounded these feelings. Here is a band, only six months old, that are already capable of putting on an entirely captivating show. They play a beautiful brand of atmospheric, dynamic rock music and the sky is the limit for them.

Sydney needs to rally and ensure that bands this promising regularly have venues to play and an audience that wants to participate. If we don’t it will be our collective loss… and they will kill it somewhere else. Probably Melbourne, where they seem to be stockpiling brilliant female artists.

Speaking of which, Gabriella Cohen was second on the bill. She travelled to Sydney in troubadour mode after supporting Big Thief in Melbourne with her full band. At first she seemed a little uncomfortable on stage; the sound required a little tweaking during the beginning of her set and it appeared that she missed the grounding a good band can provide.

However, Cohen is too charming a performer to sink in such circumstances and it didn’t take long for her to steady the ship. By the time talented accompanist Kate “Babyshakes” Dillion took to the stage to provide reinforcements, the crowd had been won over.

Big Thief were a force of nature. Despite having only one album to their name they are a band in full control of their craft. The songs they have at their disposal are great and the bands’ relationship with them seems to have deepened further since recording them.

The savagery of Real Love, while present in the recording, was even more powerful and affecting in a live environment. The violence and conflict in Adrianne Lenker’s vocals and lyrics are a vital part of what makes Big Thief so engaging. Her guitar solo during this song was an equally potent representation of these themes and a highlight of the night.

The band was also pitch perfect. While their playing in many ways could be described as the definition of tasteful, they have an undeniable experimental streak.

Buck Meek’s guitar playing is adventurous, melodic and emotive. The rhythm section, made up of James Krivchenia and Max Oleartchik, is fluid and dynamic; often changing tempo to great effect. They remind me of peak-period Wilco with their engaging musicality and strong emotional core.

As an audience we were treated to a few songs that were not on the band’s debut album Masterpiece. It’s worth noting that these new songs left as powerful an impression on me as the material I was familiar with; something which is unusual. Because of this I am going to end this piece with two simple suggestions:

Keep your eyes peeled for any of this new music.
See Big Thief when they return to Australian shores.

Trust me.


Alastair Cairns is the frontman of Sydney rock band Wells. Read his top 10 songs of 2016 here.