Friday, May 20, 2011

LOW @ CLUB ACADEMY 19 May 2011

I’m one of those Low listeners who is more familiar with the Minnesotan band’s Christmas EP than their 9 album career proper. So with several listens to this year’s album "C’mon" and then a hasty, selective toe-tip into their 18 year history under my belt I approached tonight, my first time seeing Low, with trepidation. I expected it to be neither Christmassy nor familiar and therefore possibly inaccessible. But first the support.

sleepingdog is the musical vehicle for Chantal Acda of Belgium. Tonight performing as part of a duo, she sat upright at electric piano; he (Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid I think) stood with guitar and effects pedals, the pair facing each other centre-stage. sleepingdog played under a harsh, cool blue light – this and the ethereal sounds came across as more Scandinavian chill than Belgian chocolate-box warmth and cosiness. Echoing piano, gentle drones and extended notes provided the backdrop for Acda’s haunting vocals and even when she switched to acoustic guitar for a few songs, and the lighting warmed to a rosy orange-red hue, the mood was still cool and restrained. There was not much variety across the six songs they played but an impressive, powerful consistency. At one point I noticed that Acda had goose-bumps on her calves. She was not alone. My new favourite Belgian band.

For Low the stage clutter was stripped away: instruments and amps pushed to the back of the wide, shallow playing area leaving an expanse of wooden flooring between them and the bank of stage monitors at the front. With Sufjan Stevens playing a sold-out show on the other side of town, and a small-in-numbers crowd for sleepingdog, I was worried about the turn-out. But by the time Low took to the stage it felt packed at the front. The trio of Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and Steve Garrington were made up to a four-piece with a seated keyboard player stage-right. If the crowd had been quiet for sleepingdog, the patient hush as Low took the stage was beyond reverential, as though no-one wanted the silent spell to be broken before a note was sounded.

And that spell-breaking note came from Sparhawk on guitar. He may be of average height, playing a cream Gibson Les Paul that appeared three-quarter size, but he drew a cavernous, loud, crunching single note out of those guitar strings to usher in ‘Nothing But Heart’. From that moment on I was magnetized throughout by Sparhawk and then Parker’s playing and singing.

The first half if not most of the set drew largely on ‘C’Mon’, playing all but one song. For these or the later smattering of older songs, the effect was similar. Sparhawk and Parker’s voices, either singularly or combined (hers a little under-amplified here?) were hypnotically sweet and lingering; and then underneath the sound was more muscular and intense, whether loud, quiet or gradually building up a head of steam. The four were all dressed in black and performed with eyes-closed rapture or simply looking downwards. There were no frills or antics to their performance with an almost casual as well as minimal stage set-up: the two guitars used were simply propped against the wall rather than racked or sitting on stands. However the precision and intensity of the playing of a (to me) largely familiar set, and the astonishing range of Sparhawk’s facial expressions (agony? Ecstasy?) that matched the shifting moods of the music was an impossible-to-resist combination. I can’t think of a recent gig which kept my concentration so intently as tonight's.

Some songs memorably broke the mould of the rest of the set: Sparhawk’s lidless, blue eyes remained fixed open with a piercing almost scary honesty for ‘$20’; ‘Canada’ rewarded the whoops of recognition with a visceral, thudding Velvets-like rhythm, and there was even some bleak humour in the intro and lyrics to ‘Something’s Turning Over’. The crowd only broke ranks on the silence when Sparhawk asked if there was “anything specific” anyone wanted to hear during the encores. The clamorous, overlapping shouting was deafening. On the other side of town, Sufjan may have been dazzling audiences with feathers and day-glo but here on a plain stage with minimal trimmings, Low made a powerful impression with just the simple, fundamental power of their music. There’s a first time for everything; I’m now just regretting I left it so late with Low.

The Set List:

Nothing But Heart
Try To Sleep
You See Everything
Silver Rider
Especially You
Something’s Turning Over
Laser Beam
Two Step
Violent Past

1 comment:

Razz said...

My 3rd time for Low (4th time for Sparhawk-saw Retribution Gospel Choir last year) and everytime I'm blown away.

the subtley of the vocals with the crunching of the guitar is a thing of beauty