Review: Adrianne Lenker – beautifully intimate, occasionally unpolished, at Bristol Beacon (29/4/24)

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Bookending tonight’s performance – and with a few straightforward declarations of audience love along the way – is emphatic evidence of the affection that Adrianne Lenker has inspired within the 1800-plus capacity audience. The Minnesota-raised singer-songwriter is welcomed on stage with long and lengthy bout of applause and leaves 100 minutes later to a huge standing ovation. As it transpires, the twenty songs that lay in between, and a starkly intimate and pretty performance that is charmingly coloured by an occasional lack of polish, is validating of such adulation.

Lenker’s diffident ‘Hello’ toward the audience, a sparse stage set up adorned with two lava lamps, and her taking some quiet moments to tune her acoustic guitar, transform Beacon Hall into a large, hushed, living room. Though just last month she released sixth solo album Bright Future, Lenker is perhaps best known as the voice and principle songwriting machine behind indie rock stalwarts Big Thief.

Thus, tonight’s set begins with a hat trick of tunes she wrote for the Brooklyn band; the strummed ‘Sparrow’ is the first to feature Lenker’s brisk falsetto and resolves with a nicely executed fingerpicked outro; the weighty folk of ‘Pretty Things’ explores the gender identity theme oft recurring in her work (“There’s a woman inside of me/There’s one inside of you too.”); then ‘Orange’ is propelled with a nice ascending and descending bass note picking pattern.

Aside from the enjoyment of Lenker’s delicate but substantial vocals, and fine songwriting containing lyrics both poetic and ambiguous, part of tonight’s charm is in the less polished moments. She misplaces a chord during the early moments of ‘Steamboat’ and, after executing an absolutely faultless whistle interlude during ‘Cactus Practice’, a later attempt at some more elaborate whistling goes slightly awry.  Later, the hitherto unreleased country-folk ditty ‘Once A Bunch of Times’ sees Lenker forget the lyrics, and after a lengthy strummed intermission to gather her thoughts, she decides to “skip to the best verse at the end.”

Such mistakes could well be the product of Lenker’s apparent modus operandi of not sticking on a particular setlist from show to show, and they only serve to add to the casual intimacy of her performance. And we are of course spoiled with moments where Lenker’s talents shine. There are, for instance, occasions where her guitar skills come to the fore; the dark, dramatic folk of ‘Simulation Swarm’ has Lenker nicely incorporating pinch harmonics within the song’s instrumental passage.

Tonight is divided equally into two halves as Lenker is joined onstage by pianist Nick Hakim and violinist Josefine Runsteen for a second set of ten songs. Describing how the two musicians were such a big part of making Bright Futures, Lenker sincerely declares “It’s such as treat to have you on tour. I love you guys.” Downing her guitar and singing Big Thief’s ‘Oldest,’ it’s immediately apparent that Lenker’s vocals meld wonderfully with Hakim’s piano.

With the addition of the two musicians – and a stage backdrop morphing from a wavy underwater blue, a verdant green and what looks like a murmuration of blackbirds – there are moments where Lenker’s folk songs truly soar. ‘Heavy Focus’ is elevated by excellent three part harmonies and the song’s conclusion is met with the first “I love you” bestowed upon Lenker from the audience. ‘not a lot, just forever’ becomes something grand with Runsteen’s violin and the subtle twinkling of Hakim’s piano.

There’s another “I love you” heard from the crowd and the shy but emotionally open Lenker responds “I love you too.” Wary of the time she looks to the wings and asks “Do we have minutes left?” Someone shouts “Hours!” from the audience. Lenker humorously replies “you might regret it if we actually played for hours more.”

With songs as good as ‘Sadness as a Gift’, a couple of more hours seems doable. The song’s theme of yearning amidst separation is beautifully captured in Runsteen’s violin, and the optimistic lyric “You could write me someday, and I think you will” evolving into the rather less certain “You could write me someday, and I hope you will” drives home the heartache rather wonderfully.

Then we have the near unanimous standing ovation, and what tonight has seemed one large cohesive mass of love for Adrianne Lenker, spills out on to the Bristol streets.

Scott Hammond

Photo by Germaine Dunes