Adrianne Lenker @ Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 24 Apr

Tonight's performance from Adrianne Lenker is profound and playful; during the silences and singing, we're together. It's a gift

Live Review by Skye Butchard | 26 Apr 2024

For Adrianne Lenker and her band Big Thief, songs are living things. Their live performances are full of twists on recorded material, made fresh by interplay and circumstance. That’s led to fan disappointment, like when their live version of Vampire Empire from The Late Show had lyrics changed and its loose groove tightened up for the single. There are three versions now – Lenker made a joyfully scrappy hoedown version for her gorgeous new record Bright Future. But tonight’s show reveals that there were never three versions. There's one, and also hundreds. 

There is one, because Lenker’s solo work rests on a core songwriting purity. We listen for the specificity and weight of her storytelling, or the intricate ways she constructs melodies and guitar lines. On each listen there are new things to notice, like tonight, where the playful sibilance to her verses on Anything stands out. There are hundreds, because of her spontaneous and embodied approach to performing. Vampire Empire gradually turns into a singalong tonight, as the crowd reacts to each other and she reacts to the crowd. She encourages us to “freestyle-whistle solo”, and creates a call and response during that ‘chills/drills/pills’ section. 

This spontaneity is true of her band, too. It’s a highwire act to have so much of your music require atmosphere and crowd connection; Big Thief’s 2022 Primavera set struggled through noise-bleed that flattened all subtlety. You can catch them on an off night, when there's chaos in the air. When it works, there’s magic in it. 

Her solo work relies on intimacy even more. Fittingly, Bright Future collaborator Nick Hakim delivers a sparse and delicate support set that prepares the audience for agreed silence. He performs a collection of piano songs that are all ghost notes and negative space. His voice is warm, resonant, and nostalgic; it reminds of listening to ballads made for adults as a kid, where every emotion was too large and scary to be held. 

Black and white photo of Adrianne Lenker, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, and a cowboy hat.
Image: Adrianne Lenker @ Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 24 Apr by Rosie Sco

Adrianne Lenker arrives in a flannel shirt and large-brimmed cowboy hat. Yeehaw. She begins with Symbol, its intricate finger-picked guitar phrase fills the room, and underlines an obvious point: Lenker can play the hell out of the guitar.

The next song is a deep cut – Kerina from 2014's a-sides with now-bandmate former-husband Buck Meek. Later, a new unreleased song documents her personal history with love, including their marriage and eventually divorce. It ends on the tangled feeling that even after a full life lived, it's only in her current relationship that she knows love. Like many Lenker ballads, it's deceptively simple and devastatingly constructed. 

Her acoustic version of Simulation Swarm is a highlight, and again captures that songwriting purity. There are many reasons to love the recorded version, like the countermelodic bass part or the incredible guitar solo. Reframing it as a solo piece, the lyrics are pulled into focus. It's more emotional than before. Lenker still does the solo, but with a silly stripped-back charm.

Tonight is profound and playful, no more than during Real House, written from the child's perspective, albeit with the weight of time. With Nick Hakim on piano, Lenker delivers a story about her early relationship with her mother, and the need for emotional security. Catharsis arrives with closer Sadness as a Gift. Live, the song has the feeling of being around a family piano, jamming and singing during a rare time when everyone is in the same place, during a holiday, or when someone has passed. Tonight, during the silences and singing, we're together. It's a gift.