Live Review: Adrianne Lenker, Lutalo, Arden, DE, Nov. 12, 2021

Was it really just six weeks ago when Adrianne Lenker last landed in the area? This intimate solo show at Arden Gild Hall felt a world away from the jammed audience and jamming musicians at Big Thief’s sold-out shows at Union Transfer a month and a half prior.

Lenker’s 17-song set was nearly equally, seamlessly divided between 2020’s solo Songs, recorded in a one-room cabin in the Berkshires, and unreleased material she’s played with and without the band, along with a pair of tunes from Big Thief’s 2019 release, U.F.O.F. (the title track and “Cattails,” nestled back-to-back just as they are on the album).

Rejecting any preconceived ideas about the heartache and lovesickness that would fuel a record written in the woods on the heels of a breakup, Songs yielded high points like “Not A Lot, Just Forever,” “Ingydar,” and “Forwards Beckon Rebound.” For the encore of “Anything,” with its plea “I wanna kiss, kiss your eyes again,” Lenker enlisted the Arden audience to join in as much as we wanted—from full-on harmonies to a single word slightly out of sync to an echo at the end of a line—and it sounded raw, real and perfect in a way that could never be precisely replicated.

As cool as it is to watch Lenker rock out and stalk the stage with Big Thief, seeing her sing her tender, untamed lyrics, sitting still as the hushed, standing crowd hung on to every exacting word, was its own, deeper reward. Verdant images, flashes of euphoria and sadness, freshly repurposed rhymes, and feral turns of phrase accumulated and dissipated, connecting Lenker and her listeners like invisible tendrils.

There’s a sacred channel for her poetry, even disconnected from their dark chords, in the way she gave her words room to unfurl and collect in our collective ears, both the billowing ribbons of phrases that make no literal sense on the page and refrains that echo like long-forgotten folk standards. As she sang “Spud Infinity,” time seemed to stand still and allow each of us to contemplate “what’s it gonna take to free the celestial bodies.”

On “Once A Buncha Times,” every time the chorus came around, there was a new opportunity to commit to “fine dine the demons and give peace a chance.” And with “Promise Is A Pendulum,” the space intentionally left blank after Lenker sings “And I’m not saying I’m not jealous or scared anymore/I’m just saying” was just big enough to find your own way in and your own honest answer. 

When Lenker reconvenes with Big Thief to tour behind its new album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (out next week), these songs will take on a parallel life. They might fill ever-bigger venues with fans shouting along as guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia fill in all the sonic spaces, or they might make you pine for Lenker’s solo treatment, but in the spirit of abundance that the singer/songwriter and the full band embody in different ways, you might choose to be grateful that this most singular of talents can produce art that can not only coexist but thrive in multiple forms.

Lutalo—newly relocated from the Midwest to the East Coast and traveling with Lenker as he prepares to release his first solo album—opened the show with a well-received set centering his gentle vocals, warm guitar tone and a clutch of melodic numbers including “Warned Her” and “Bad Man.”

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich