Dispatches from the Swarm
A 'Big Thief' concert on a Tuesday night
On Tuesday I went with my brother to Massey Hall in downtown Toronto for a concert by Big Thief, a Brooklyn-based folk rock group whose music I love, and have mentioned here before. This was my first time attending a show since 2019 — I had made it one of my New Year’s Resolutions in 2020 to be at more concerts, but alas, the pandemic had other plans for me. I am now more than eager to take advantage of the flood of live music returning to the city, even as I am otherwise hesitant to assume that things are ‘back to normal.’
To that end, Massey Hall was cheek-by-jowl. Newly renovated to reveal panes of elegant stained glass previously smothered for generations, it is an iconic Toronto venue for a reason, though it seems that the new updates do not include more comfortable or ample seating. Sitting in wooden chairs surely fit for guests only 5’5” or shorter, with my neighbour’s leg-meat mingling against mine, the lead-up to the show itself had its disconcerting moments — but then, magic.
The band took to the stage with an unfussy gait, bursting into “Change,” the opener from their most recent album. The hall filled with their harmonies and those of us up in the gallery strained forward to watch them at their work. I only had a clear shot of guitarist Buck Meek, but holding myself at the right angle just-so, I could catch the others too, peeping the crest of frontwoman Adrianne Lenker’s buzzed head below the gleaming banister, a neck or pair of shoulders emerging as she jostled her way through a complicated riff.
Good bands are a strange achievement of alchemy, aren’t they? Big Thief tend toward the unconventional, especially on this new record. I have always thought of them as a bit more percussive, occasionally brooding and angular, than most contemporary indie folk music. I am drawn to the tenderness of their anger and the way it tends to build beside gentle whispers and confessions. Their sense of balance is just as interesting as their experimentation, their willingness to combine strange feelings, sounds, and registers. Think of “Black Diamonds” from 2017’s Capacity, for instance: on the record, it sounds like Lenker is just allowing the words to escape, but performed live last week, the whole band shouted them, propelling out the chorus like a flood.
These alterations suggest a trust and a playfulness that felt electric in a live setting; I was fascinated by how they worked together. Their eyes were constantly finding one another, as if wordlessly checking in, then gifting one another the note or chord for which they had been waiting. When they dropped off mid-way through “Flower of Blood,” they huddled for five minutes to rethink the set, unphased by the watching crowd.
It is not uncommon to compare a lively concert to a religious experience, but for me this connection is especially poignant. Having grown up a devoted attendee of Christian summer camp, where we sang worship music accompanied by a band twice daily, my earliest experiences of live music were conditioned by feelings of transcendence, euphoria, and rapture. Though my religiosity has changed, this affective experience hasn’t. Like a spirit, music moves (in) us. Perhaps this is why I do not see the appeal in the (perhaps uniquely Canadian and polite) turn toward sitting down at concerts, because I go to them not to watch, but to dance and to feel. I find being in the crowd at a concert to be like swimming, in the way that it both enlivens and unburdens us of our bodies.
I assume that it is the effect of not just the sound itself but the arrangement of the crowd, of being alone together. Freud believed that in the crowd, our super-ego was displaced, and thus the self is de-centered. This was a concern for him however, writing in the mid-20th-century when crowds had too often become violent and cruel mobs, but since then, psychoanalysts have sought to carefully recuperate some of the mysterious, hypnotic power of losing oneself in the swarm. Perhaps that is it — that it need not loosen us from our responsibility to one another, but can in fact teach us about how we are connected.
I have to think that a great deal of this effect comes from being unwatched. This plays out differently in different kinds of crowds, of course — in a political setting, perhaps the call/response structure destroys this impression, or in the theatre where every program rustling or audience member sneezing echoes through the room. Some concerts can be like this as well — too choreographed, too aware of themselves — but the beauty of Big Thief’s show was their total un-self-consciousness. There was no talking to the audience, asking them to clap along or cheer, pandering introductions, or storytime — just singing, with an occasional off-the-cuff side comment of no more than a sentence. Witnessing outsized talent unsanded-down by external pressure — it was like being a part of a rehearsal. They, like us, were alone together.
Reading: Olivia Laing’s To the River, an account of walking the River Ouse in Sussex, the same river where Virginia and Leonard Woolf had a cottage and where Virginia drowned herself in 1941. I will be visiting the cottage on my upcoming UK trip — Laing’s attentive nature writing and research has accelerated my excitement.
Watching: I’ve been bummed out by a lot of TV lately, but I feel the tides turning. HBO is always reliable, and I am very into their new series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty — it’s flashy, fun, and surprisingly charming, even for those of us who lack basketball or sports knowledge. I also just finished Season 2 of Bridgerton and will being renewing my commitment to the empire waistline.