LOW live at Daniel Street. Milford CT. 4.30.11
Intense… Brooding… Surreal…
These were just a few of the adjectives that I heard being tossed around after Low’s show at Milford, Connecticut’s Daniel Street Club on Saturday night. In that hazy, post-show atmosphere, the attendees spoke mostly in hushed tones as they exited, quietly murmuring to each other as if to preserve the solemnity of what they had just experienced. Manic Productions’ own Mark Nussbaum, who organized the entire event, even called it “the best show [he had] seen in… a really long time”. Indeed, it was clear that something special had happened, but what exactly was it that made this particular show such a significant one?
For me, it was apparent from the very beginning that Low’s show would be unique. Shortly after a mood-setting set from singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler, the band members began to take the stage. Wasting little time with introductions and formalities, Low’s iconic figurehead Alan Sparhawk strapped on a glorious white Gibson Les Paul, and the band began to play. The addition of a touring keyboardist to the lineup helped tremendously, allowing the band to open with ”Point of Disgust”, the highlight track from their 2002 album Trust. The mournful, melancholic piano plinks immediately set a tone that would only be refined further as the night went on. To the audience members, many of whom were seated in front of the stage in rows of chairs arranged specifically for this show, the atmosphere was just right for the kind of show that only a band like Low can deliver.
Immediately after the mournful, Mimi Parker-led “Point of Disgust” ended, the crowd was met with the startlingly glitchy electronic pulse of “Breaker”, the standout from the band’s divisive 2007 album Drums and Guns. Supported only by those looped beats, handclaps, and a minimalistic organ drone, Sparhawk wailed the song’s opening line “Our bodies break, and the blood just spills and spills,” he sang. The song is chilling in its own right, but was made all the more powerful by his commanding stage presence. A seasoned performer, Sparhawk was incredibly confident onstage. His expressive singing style was compounded by his almost disturbingly emotive facial expressions and body language, which conveyed a deep personal connection to Low’s music. Even when Sparhawk was not the center of attention, he remained a commanding figurehead of the band, laying down complementary guitar melodies and gorgeous harmonies whenever his wife Mimi Parker was on lead-vocal duty.
On record, Low has always been (perhaps intentionally) distant-sounding and abstract. Unlike his contemporary Mark Kozelek, another “slowcore” progenitor who incidentally played at the very same venue in March, Sparhawk has never been a particularly personal songwriter. This usually works on the records, which tend to have a cold and sombre tone, but occasionally when listening to Low albums, I wish that I could connect more. Although that personality is perhaps missing on many of their albums, Sparhawk and his bandmates perfectly conveyed it in the live setting. It was clear from their expressiveness that although Parker and Sparhawk may not always be singing about themselves, they certainly believe in what they’re doing. A deep connection between performer and audience is what every musician should strive for when playing live shows, and Low effected such a connection very gracefully on Saturday.
For the remainder of the show, the band worked through gorgeous versions of nearly every song on their great new album C’Mon, utilizing the keyboard player to its fullest extent on the album’s more key-heavy songs such as the beautiful opener “Try To Sleep”. Low seemed to revel in the simplicity of the new songs, which are much more straightforward than the material from their previous two albums. The simple, three or four chord jaunt of tracks such as the stirring “Witches” allowed the band to be a little more loose onstage. Sparhawk in particular seemed freed from his self-imposed, regimented former state, and seemed to enjoy himself quite a lot when improvising noisy, dissonant guitar solos that somehow managed to fit in with the songs. The repetitive nature of certain C’mon songs such as “$20” and “Nothing But Heart” also allowed to band to create some really astounding crescendos during their set. Low brought their stirring intensity to a high peak during their performance of “Majesty/Magic”, a standout track on C’mon. With “Majest/Magic”, as with almost all the songs they performed that nigh, the live version was far superior to the album version.
Interspersed with the wonderful C’mon songs, Low also performed a surprising number of tracks from their 2005 album The Great Destroyer. Since that album found the group largely abandoning their characteristically slow and minimalist sound in favor of a faster, more developed one, it was interesting to witness these songs being performed in the live setting as well. When the band began to play the record’s opening track “Monkey”, the crowd went wild, or at least as wild as a seated crowd at a Low show is going to get. The throbbing post-punk sound of that song reverberated through the room, making for a clear highlight in a night full of great performances.
Rather than do the whole fake encore thing, Sparhawk announced that they were just going to keep playing as the show wound down. For me, their three-song “encore” might have been the best part of the whole show. First, they played the heart-breakingly beautiful “Sunflower” from their masterpiece Things We Lost In The Fire. This was a really touching moment for me, because I absolutely love that song and I didn’t expect them to play anything from that record at the show. Finally, after a very long and enjoyable show, they closed with another surprise: “When I Go Deaf” from The Great Destroyer. I had never really paid attention to the song prior to the show, but their captivating performance made me focus intently. “When I Go Deaf” might be one of their greatest lyrical accomplishments, and it’s enormous-sounding ending might be one of their greatest musical accomplishments. Whatever it is on record, their live performance of that song was really something to behold.
Low is one of my favorite bands that I’ve discovered in the past year, and I had been looking forward to this show for quite a while. I’ve heard lots of positive things about this band’s live performances, but as positive as any of those things may be, none of them could have prepared me for the show on Saturday night. It was almost indescribably awesome — a perfect balance of slow, intense minimalism, and stormy, defiant rock music. Don’t take my word for it though; go out and see Low yourself when they come to your town. You probably won’t regret it.