Spiral Stairs and Big Thief – Tuning Fork December 3, 2017


It was two shows for the price of one last night at Auckland’s Tuning Fork as former Pavement guitarist Spiral Stairs and up-and-coming Brooklyn indie-rockers Big Thief each served up a full set.

You were wise to show up early for this Sunday night show. I arrived just before 8pm to find Spiral Stairs (aka Scott Kannberg) halfway through his opening number, Dance (Cry Wolf) and they were already in full flight, with guitars wailing away.

Scott was presenting songs from his latest album, Doris & The Daggers, along with a few choice Pavement tunes (the ones that he wrote) and a few other oddities.

Other than the Pavement tune Hit The Plane Down, the first half of the set was all Doris songs, and they sound like straightforward indie-rockers…possibly even a bit more mainstream. Kannberg isn’t the world’s greatest vocalist or most charismatic front man, but his enthusiasm made up for any other shortcomings.

Musically, I thought the organ player sounded especially good, driving the band and mixing well with the two guitars.

He’s a man who wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, whether it’s Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac or classic Flying Nun.

During the second, “weirder” half, Scott brought on 3Ds guitarist David Saunders to help out on Vulcan Hands, a tune that Kannberg explained was appropriated from the 3Ds anyway.

At the end of the set, he introduced the bandmembers as Fleetwood Mac members, Jeremy Spencer, Bob Welch, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, and he was Stevie Nicks.

After just over an hour, Spiral Stairs wrapped up with Pavement’s Two States.

Regarding Big Thief, I have to be honest, I have barely heard them, so I really had no preconceived notions of what to expect, other than whatever NYC indie-rock is in this day and age.

The band’s set began with a solo performance by frontperson Adrianne Lenker who accompanied herself on guitar while singing a rather beautiful new song. Lenker’s delicate, fragile voice held the audience rapt.

The three other members, Buck Meek (guitar), Max Oleartchik (bass) and James Krivchenia (drums), took the stage, but remained silent for most of the next song, Pretty Things. This proved to be one of the most captivating songs of the night with the androgynous looking Lenker singing, “There’s a woman inside of me, there’s one inside of you too”.

Then a sharp guitar line rang out and the band rolled into Shark Smile, the tune, about a couple in an auto accident, giving off a CCR/Proud Mary vibe.

By the time they got to Masterpiece, the title track of their 2006 debut album, the band was going full throttle, including a careening guitar solo.

Adrianne took some time to tell us about her and Buck down time in Raglan over the previous nine days, where they learned to surf. They clearly were enjoying their first time in New Zealand.

Bassist Max asked if there were any venues on the South Island or “just dragons”. I’m pretty sure he was joking.

Like Spiral Stairs, Big Thief played for just over an hour, but while the first act got more interesting as they went on. Big Thief’s songs began to blend one into another. Perhaps the problem was that it was difficult to decipher Lenker’s intensely personal lyrics in this live setting.

The other problem was the increasingly long pauses to tune her guitar.

This brings me to my latest rant…I’m beginning to despise whoever invented that on-stage tuning gizmo everyone now uses. These long periods of watching someone stare down at their instrument, twisting knobs is interrupting the pace of many shows, this one in particular.

Generally, when this is happening, the artist makes some awkward attempt at banter or there’s just uncomfortable silence.

I understand that an in-tune instrument is important, but I can’t believe that a guitar can go that far out of tune after every song. It feels like using this tuning device is the on-stage version of constantly checking your phone.

Anyway, with that off my chest, I’ll note that Big Thief finished their set with a new song, Terminal Paradise, that Lenker said indicated a new direction for the band’s next record…”low dynamics” is how she described it, and it did sound moody and less loud that some of the earlier tunes.

They returned for an encore…and more tuning…to wrap up with Capacity, the title track to their latest release.

Andrianne Lenker proved to be an interesting performer and her songwriting is definitely worth checking out. We’ll see what happens with album number three.

Marty Duda

Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Michael Flynn:


Spiral Stairs set list:

  1. Dance (Cry Wolf)
  2. The Unconditional
  3. No Comparison
  4. Angel Eyes
  5. Exiled Tonight
  6. Hit The Plane Down
  7. Cold Change
  8. Caught In The Rain
  9. Dundee Man
  10. Emoshuns
  11. Trams (Stole My Love)
  12. Kennel District
  13. Vulcan Hands
  14. Hypnotized
  15. Two States

Big Thief set list:

  1. New Song
  2. Pretty Things
  3. Shark Smile
  4. Masterpiece
  5. Paul
  6. Great White Shark
  7. New Song
  8. Parallels
  9. Mary
  10. Real Love
  11. Mythological Beauty
  12. Velvet Ring
  13. Terminal Paradise
  14. Capacity