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Adrianne Lenker—Guitar Wiz, Reluctant Talker, Minnesotan—Dug Into Her Catalog at the State Theatre

It was a show for the true believers—and a show that could make true believers out of casual fans.

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Adrianne Lenker’s band, Big Thief, has plenty of middle-aged male fans, including me. But her true devotees tend to be young, and her solo gig at the State Theatre in Minneapolis on Saturday (the first of a sold-out two-night stand) brought them downtown, including high-school kids, mostly girls, whose faces lit up with genuine, unguarded delight at the appearance of their idol. 

In jeans and boots, her hair pulled back tightly, guitar nestled low in her lap as she sat spread-legged, Lenker herself was a modest figure of adoration. She said very little for the first half hour or so, not even nervously filling the dead air as she tuned between songs—which, given her fondness for alternate tunings, was frequently. If you guessed she was shy rather than standoffish, you were right; she loosened up mid-set and chatted with a disarming awkwardness, often punctuated by a winning giggle. 

It’s been eight years since the first Big Thief album, and Lenker, who’ll turn 33 next week, is riding a prolonged creative streak that not even the pandemic could break. The band followed up two excellent albums in 2019 (U.F.O.F. and Two Hands) with an even better 20-song, 70-minute 2022 release called Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, which means she’s at the stage where she can even get away with using a title a second-tier Elephant 6 band would have rejected in ’98. This year came Bright Future, her sixth solo album but the first fully realized one. 

“It's a little bit magic” were the first words Lenker sang Saturday night, from the title track to that last Big Thief album, and that was fitting. Lyrically, Lenker courts a mysticism that’s a bit eccentric but never crackpot. Her parents spent some time in a cultish born-again sect when she was young and later veered atheist. That kind of upbringing will leave ya with some questions for sure, though Lenker’s spiritual curiosity is open-hearted and even-keeled, alive to possibility rather than seeking a precise cosmic answer.

Curiously, the Big Thief songs sound much sturdier in her own solo hands than they often do with her group. The band’s songs can sound like they’re coming together via serendipity—not necessarily through improvisation, but by a kind of gradually arrived-upon internal consensus, with tenuous connections assayed till they prove taut bonds. Left to Lenker alone to perform, her compositions can seem oddly shaped only because certain passages extend in unexpected directions. Working out from a sturdy trunk on a tune, she inches out a bit further on a willowy limb than the more prudent might without ever losing her balance. 

Solo, it was easier to hear how the melody of “U.F.O.F.” subtly drifts from eerie to curious in the space of a single chord change. And while Lenker is the sort of writer whose individual phrases often linger (“You don’t even know why/When you cry,” for instance, from “Cattails”), the full flow of her lyrics gathers you in more completely when she’s only accompanying herself. 

With this tour, Lenker has stepped to the fore as an acoustic guitar hero. Her fretwork has never been in doubt, but with a band churning and wailing behind you, it’s easy to flaunt your electric guitar prowess, as Lenker does regularly on Big Thief’s six-minute shredder “Not.” Her finger-picking never sounded busy or cluttered, and she translated electric moments, like the solo bits on “Simulation Swarm,” to her acoustic in ways that maintained the spirit of the original arrangement while transforming it. 

Lenker finally took some time to speak before a cover of Lucinda Williams’s “Minneapolis.” After saying that Williams was “a songwriter I’m so proud to call a friend now,” Lenker discussed her many Minnesota ties, if somewhat vaguely. She was raised throughout Minnesota, primarily out in Nisswa, but she indulged in no easy name-dropping, even though just a street name or two would have definitely stirred up a crowd that applauded even when she sang “Mississippi River.” (Interestingly, there was zero audible pop for "Great Lakes" during another song.) 

Instead, quite Minnesotanly, Lenker stuck to talk about the weather (“I have grandparents who get disappointed when it’s not cold or snowy enough”) and praised the unique nature of Minneapolis coffee shops, about which she was correct even if she didn’t go into details.  

“That’s not eloquent,” she apologized, adding, “There are lots of feels.” (In the past, she’s had an equally hard time putting her relationship with Minnesota into words. “I don’t really think of Minnesota when I think of home,” she told the New Yorker in 2020. “I think of it as part of who I am.”) She wondered aloud if everyone had the same reactions to the place they grew up, before interjecting, “I’m still growing up. Well, I’m growing in all sorts of directions, actually—not just up.”

Lenker gently mocked her own tongue-tiedness at times. After she played a new, uncharacteristically straightforward love song, she introduced the unreleased Big Thief song “Happiness” thus: “This is also kind of a new song. Except it’s an old song. A new song that’s not really old. A new old song.” 

My little quibble with the show is that Lenker played four numbers from the solo album Songs, written Bon Iver-ishly alone in a cabin about a breakup during the early pandemic. That collection sounds a bit private to me, a songwriter overheard in her workshop, and while some fans might cherish that intimacy, the songs are more opaque musically and lyrically than usual. I zoned a bit during these—I wasn’t bored, but “Two Reverse” and “Zombie Girl” are more hypnotic than arresting. 

But hey, this was a solo show, and the sort of solo show where you focus on the deeper crannies of your artistry: your pandemic album, or the new song you maybe haven't fully finished, or the one that goes “I cried into your jacket/Wiped snot on your glove” that you put out on a Bandcamp-only fundraiser for Palestine Children's Relief Fund.

And Lenker did play 10 or 11 Big Thief songs, depending on how you count “Vampire Empire.” The band performs it live, and they’ve recorded it as a non-album cut, but it also appears on Lenker’s latest solo album. (Then again, since these are all Lenker songs, does it even matter?) However, she only played one other song from Bright Future, the lovely “Sadness as a Gift,” a clear-eyed breakup song that accepts how pain deepens our lives while suggesting that those new depths also bring new pain. It soared even without the Josefin Runsteen fiddle break that brightens the recording. 

You can place Lenker in the line of rediscovered ’70s folkies like Vashti Bunyan and Judee Sill, though she’s already leapfrogged past them as a songwriter and performer. But you can’t wave off the influence of the old guys, either. Her crackling warble suggests regular listens to the Neil Young of “After the Gold Rush,” and there’s a melodic shift during the chorus of “Forgotten Hands”—you fans know the one—where I can’t help hearing Richard Manuel of the Band ache up into his falsetto. 

Dylan is inescapably part of her DNA, audible in that rush of word-crammed verses, uninterrupted by chorus, that make up a song like “Vampire Empire.” If anyone, she reminds me of the Dylan of Another Side, just before his electric moment, when he was adapting from socially conscious folk to more personal lyrics and his most prone to excess. Lenker seems inspired by the flaws of that period, yet she’s a strong enough artist that she makes them over into the strength of her own personal craft.

This wasn’t much of a singalong show, though surely plenty (if not all) in the audience knew plenty (if not all) of Lenker’s lyrics. (One girl a row ahead of me seemed to mouth the words earnestly and silently.) But it wasn’t a night of pure reverence either. When Lenker sang about “two hands clapping” on “Time Escaping,” the crowd brought their hands together twice, as on the recording. And she interrupted her dexterous picking on that same song to shoot her hands way up high on the fretboard and pluck out almost comic little passages. 

Then Lenker’s brother Noah joined her for the transcendently silly “Spud Infinity,” boinging along on a jaw harp (he even got a solo) as she warbled lines like “last one there is a potato knish” and wondered “What's it gonna take to free the celestial body?” The crowd clapped gamely along once they realized what song it was, though since it tumbled slowly into gear, she warned them “This is gonna change tempo, y’all.”

Because Lenker varies her setlist just enough for each show, I’m sure many of those fans bought tickets for night two on Sunday as well. And though I was fairly happy with Saturday night’s song selection, I did get a little jealous when I saw Sunday’s setlist. She played “Donut Seam”! From Bright Future! The one that goes “This whole world is dying/Don’t it seem like a good time for swimmin’?” and “Now our love is dying/Don’t it seem like a good time for kissin’?” I would have loved to hear that one. 

This is how devotees are born, isn’t it? 

Setlist
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
UFOF
Cattails
Symbol
Simulation Swarm
The Only Place
My Angel
Untitled new song
Happiness
Two Reverse
Minneapolis (Lucinda Williams cover)
Sadness as a Gift
Zombie Girl
Time Escaping
Vampire Empire
Forgotten Eyes
Spud Infinity
Fangs Lungs Ankles
Not a Lot, Just Forever

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