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What’s the big deal with Big Thief?

From 2016 to 2019, the Brooklyn-formed indie rockers released four albums to increasing critical and popular acclaim. The quartet’s latest, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You,” which was released in February, commands a mouthful of syllables and a decent chunk of attention — it spans more than 80 minutes.

The album is the sort of major statement that still elicits critical hype — now typically reserved for pop stars as indie rock’s relevance has been on shaky ground — with music writers proclaiming the band both a “miracle” and an “enigma.”

So, what does the maybe-miraculous, maybe-enigmatic indie rock band at the top of critical minds sound like on a spring night in 2022 at a fairly packed Anthem on D.C.’s waterfront?

Frontwoman Adrienne Lenker is the most compelling reason the band is worth your time. Lenker works on opposite ends of the auditory spectrum: In Big Thief’s finest songs, she is either cooing tenderly or howling at the heavens. Even the 30-year-old singer’s impressionistic lyrics are best absorbed through the same dichotomy. Lenker can muse on both physical bodies and their place in the cosmos (as in the night’s charming John Prine-esque closer “Spud Infinity”) as well as the mundanity of thumbing through your phone while watching a movie with your partner (like she does in the exquisite “Certainty”).

The contradictions came into striking focus in the album and concert opener “Change,” a single song that seems to bottle up the beautiful highs and profound longing that are characteristic of Big Thief. Through the slow-tempo beginning, there are lovely and oblique references to immortality, death and embracing the unknown. While singing it on Thursday night, Lenker began to throw her voice into a wrenching crescendo to anyone who would listen, in a performance that evoked the disruption of equilibrium you feel when losing a partner.

“Still, what I find/ Is you are always on my mind/ Could I feel happy for you/ When I hear you talk with her like we used to?/ Could I set everything free/ When I watch you holding her the way you once held me?”

Big Thief transcends ‘folk’ at 9:30 Club

Lenker’s vocals went fantastically haywire on “Not,” one of the most intense and pleasurable songs of the night about, well, nothing really. But it’s the way Lenker flicks aside language in favor of using her voice to generate the momentum of a locomotive before a wild roar of a guitar that cements this song as one of the most wonderfully unhinged, catchy and fun rock songs in recent memory.

On their record, Big Thief makes some missteps. It’s sometimes frustrating to hear a band that doesn’t want to crank out the Band or Fleetwood Mac-style anthems and instead spends time dithering around with experimental grooves that sound merely fine.

But maybe it’s no surprise that in concert, they sound like a complex, even revelatory indie rock band.

In normal times, they’re more likely to be on the road than sitting still. You could sense some telepathy between them onstage as guitarist Buck Meek and drummer James Krivchenia deftly scribbled riffs and beats around Lenker. Bassist Max Oleartchik floated around to his bandmates, and when stealing glances at one another, the foursome seemed to be in tight communion, focused more on playing for each other than the audience.

Perhaps Big Thief has unlocked a secret to making indie rock sound big and important again: Keep playing together and, better yet, keep playing it live.

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