Big Thief & Spiral Stairs, Auckland NZ, 2017

Big Thief & Spiral Stairs
3rd December 2017
The Tuning Fork, Auckland, New Zealand.

Review and Photography by Sarah Kidd.

Big Thief performing live in Auckland, New Zealand 2017. Image by Sarah Kidd.

Auckland music fans are currently spoiled for choice; there is an absolute plethora of good music around at the moment, both local and international. So understandably fans of the indie-punk-rock scene were beside themselves with joy when it was announced that Spiral Stairs fronted by the former cofounder of Pavement, Scott Kannberg would be playing a double headliner with up and comers Big Thief.

Being held on a Sunday night there was a wonderfully relaxed vibe to the air as the temperature inside the venue almost matched the one outside; those infamous humid Auckland nights already taunting all within the first few days of December. Dressed in a simple black hoodie and jeans and accompanied by four astoundingly good musicans, Kannberg took to the stage and wasted no time at all getting straight into it with a “We are Spiral Stairs – ready? … It isn’t very loud is it?” this cheeky humour of Kannbergs a feature throughout the evening. Opening with “Dance (Cry Wolf)’ an expansive track inspired by Bowie and examining a man’s journey into madness it is clearly evident that Kannbergs vocal skills are still on point. Whether from behind a guitar or moving about the stage with the mic there is an intensity about Kannberg that commands attention. “Good to be here Auckland, Thank you for coming’ – Kannberg smiles at the audience, many of whom are quite obviously Pavement fans from days gone by; but who are simultaneously embracing his latest creation. In a recent interview Kannberg discusses writing a song about his daughter so it was a thrill to be treated to that very song so early into the set; ‘Unconditional’ a sweet ode to his only child.

The set moves swiftly, each song a precious stone that is added to the small pile in front of the audience as if inviting them to pick each one up and examine it for its worth. Tracks such as ‘No Comparison’ that quivers with a distinctly Talking Heads feel to it and classic Pavement track ‘Hit The Plane Down’ soon have the audience rocking out and building up the temperature inside an already very warm venue; Kannberg himself finally conceding and removing his hoodie. Much to the delight of fans an old Preston School of Industry track was thrown in for good measure, Kannberg apologizing for the fact that he never managed to bring the band down to New Zealand, explaining that it was because he had a drug problem. This then somehow morphed into a rather funny little exchange with himself about Drug Dogs and how that is a great name for a band. Momentarily losing his place for a second it made the song seem like that much more of a luxury to hear – the on stage banter having many of the crowd giggling in the front rows.

Tracks such as ‘Emoshuns’ and ‘Trams (Stole My Love)’ are well received by everyone in attendance; while Pavement tracks such as ‘Kennel Love’ inevitably brought the house down. A special guest delighted the fans especially any of those in attendance of the 2010 Pavement show for which New Zealand band the 3Ds opened as David Saunders joined Kannberg on stage for a rumbling rendition of ‘Vulcan Hands’ Kannberg joking that he ripped the track off the 3Ds in the first place. “Right, now to get weird … that wasn’t weird enough!” exclaims Kannberg who by now is completely on fire and as such delivers a boisterous rendition of ‘Hypnotized’ that sees him almost embody the form of a televangelist as he struts up and down the stage.

Nearing the end of the set Kannberg introduces his band, as always with his tongue planted firmly inside his cheek he introduces each of the four members as the individual members of Fleetwood Mac, Kannberg himself of course being the lovely Stevie Nicks. After inviting a member of the audience up onto the stage, Spiral Stairs finish with ‘Two States’; Kannberg grinning widely as he tells the audience “Thank you Auckland, I love you”.

A very quick changeover saw everyone move up in anticipation of Big Thief taking the stage. While still relatively new in the grand scheme of the scene – having only been formed in 2015 – this four piece hailing from Brooklyn, New York have quickly made headway with audiences worldwide with their poignant and sometimes brutally honest tales of everything from a broken heart through to domestic violence. Lead by the gentle and at times outwardly anxious when speaking to the audience vocalist Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief have received much critical acclaim for both their debut album Masterpiece released in 2016 and their follow up studio album Capacity released just this year.

Coming onto stage in a rather quiet manner, Lenker sheds her hoodie to reveal a plain black tshirt which she wears loose over stonewash bell bottom jeans and some kick ass heeled leather boots. As the other three members remain still, Lenker begins the set with a solo rendition of ‘Toy in my hand’ made all the more haunting by the fact that the audience respectively remains completely silent so the song as a chance to fully spread its wings and soar across the room. She follows this up with ‘Pretty Things (Legendado)’, Max Oleartchik slowly joining her in the song on bass. With a soft “thank you’ and tiny smile Lenker steps back from the mic and turns to face the band. Counting the song in with drummer James Krivchenia – who along with guitarist Buck Meek, truly has a very unique style all of his own – this time the entire band come to life as they deliver ‘Shark Smile’.

As the main songwriter for Big Thief, Lenker certainly has a complex history from which to draw from; suffering a traumatic head injury at the age of just five (the subject becoming the song ‘Mythological Beauty’) and spending her first few years of life caught up in an religious cult; Lenker sifts through past memories and examines them through her music Yet songs such as the beautiful ‘Paul’ can just as easily be taken by an audience member and backfilled with their own polaroids of past history; the track in particular resonating with all the rebels in the audience, living on the frayed edges of society, reminding them of a love that burned so hard it left their fingers singed. While obviously not always comfortable speaking to the audience Lenker expressed the relief of taking a nine day holiday after six months of solid touring and how spending time in New Zealand learning to surf was indeed a brilliant decision as it was “the most relaxed I’ve felt in my life”. The audience applauding the bands decision tenderly laughs as Lenker adds “It’s cool being able to touch waves as we usually just hear them.”

Moving gracefully through their set is not to say that it was all just languid ballads; many of the songs building in intensity, Lenkers vocals full bodied and strong, punching out at injustices along the way. ‘Real Love’ featured a guitar solo of sorts from Lenker that more felt like a conversation between herself and her instrument. Queen of the “existential mumbles” that are as Lenker confesses “half philosophical’ the only scourge of the evening was Lenkers use of an electric guitar tuner which unfortunately resulted in large periods of silence as she would tune her guitar. This often broke the wonderful flow of the evening.

The audience were not only treated to an exceptional set, they also received the pleasure of hearing a new song by the name of ‘Terminal Paradise’ which Lenker advises is from the new record which will be “very different” from their first two. Leaving the stage following the presentation of said new music a reprise was requested by those in the front rows by drumming their hands on the edge of the wooden stage. Requests for what song should be played were taken with Lenker and crew deciding on the popular track ‘Capacity’ much to the joy of one female fan who silently had tears sliding down her cheeks the entire time.

A cathartic night of music for all it would seem.

Big Thief:
Spiral Stairs:

Were you there at The Tuning Fork for this fabulous double header? Or have you seen Big Thief or Spiral Stairs perform live somewhere else before? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Big Thief Setlist:
  1. Toy In My Hand
  2. Pretty Things (Legenado)
  3. Shark Smile
  4. Masterpiece
  5. Paul
  6. Great White Shark
  7. Parallels
  8. Mary
  9. Real Love
  10. Mythological Beauty
  11. Velvet Ring
  12. Terminal Paradise
  13. Capacity [encore]
Spiral Stairs Setlist:
  1. Dance (Cry Wolf)
  2. Unconditional
  3. No Comparison
  4. Angel Eyes
  5. Exiled Tonight
  6. Hit The Plane Down [Pavement Cover]
  7. Cold Change
  8. Caught In The Rain [Preston School of Industry Cover]
  9. Dundee Man
  10. Emoshuns
  11. Trams (Stole My Heart)
  12. Kennel District [Pavement Cover]
  13. Vulcan Hands
  14. Hypnotized
  15. Two States

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