[19 October 2011]
PopMatters Associate Events Editor
Despite The Low Anthem’s presence on the East Coast, they are still relatively unknown on the western side of the Mississippi River. Or at least that’s how it seemed at a tiny rock bar in Denver in late September. The Larimer Lounge is one of the best venues for up and coming bands in the city. Though it’s close to downtown, it’s far enough away that the neighborhood is quiet and seemingly abandoned. Inside, it’s small and dark. The walls are plastered with concert posters of unknown bands and a few now-known bands who once filled the grungy room with their music. The ceiling is low, and if a performer jumps too high, he’ll likely hit his head. The acoustics are terrible, and the sound is never good no matter how talented the sound technician. It smells, as one friend of mine put it, “like piss and rock and roll”.
It was about four years ago when I first saw The Low Anthem perform. In New York City, they filled the Cutting Room’s small back bar mostly with friends and acquaintances. The then-two-man band of Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky swapped instruments between songs, and brought guests on stage to help with songs that required more than two players. They sold CD’s with cases homemade from cereal boxes, individually numbered in pen ink. I was fortunate enough to witness this show on the recommendation of a friend—a former high school classmate of Prystowsky. About two weeks later, they were invited back to that space for an impromptu CMJ Music Festival performance. Even on short notice, the duo was able to pack the space for another memorable show.
Their presence on the East Coast grew quickly. A band that I had originally gone to see as a favor to a friend not only became one of my personal favorites, but also captured the ears of listeners everywhere they went. It was no fluke. The Low Anthem’s songs, though calm and thoughtful, possess an energy that can’t be ignored. They are lyrically poetic beyond their age and musically experimental while still maintaining strong roots in folk and rock. The addition of another multi-instrumentalist, Jocie Adams, increased their ability to play the intricate songs on stage, and matured their already tested songwriting. Within two years of that show in the back room of a hidden and now defunct bar, The Low Anthem was selling out shows up and down the coast, including the famed Bowery Ballroom in the same city as the Cutting Room, and a packed tent at the Newport Folk Festival.
After more than three years on the road, The Low Anthem has decided to take a well-deserved break. Their last leg of the US tour (to be completed with a winter run through Canada and the Northern US) took them all across the country. In Denver, the small Larimer Lounge was hardly full enough to prevent you from inching your way up to lean on the stage. You got the feeling that most people had been brought there in a similar fashion to how I had been introduced to them—by a friend, with a bit of convincing.
By now, Miller has settled more into his role as bandleader. He maintains a quiet humble, but is obviously more comfortable on stage than he was a couple years ago. He jokes, and he elaborates more on stories and song meanings. But mostly, he and the band let the music do the talking. The band’s now fourth member, Mike Irwin (who replaced Mat Davidson earlier this year), gave them even more added range. Their show consisted mainly of tunes from their recent release, Smart Flesh, including “Apothecary Love”, “Boeing 737”, and “Hey, All You Hippies!”—a song that tested the boundaries of the room’s acoustics with its crashing drums and belted chorus vocals.
One of Miller’s most innovative moves comes at the end of the “The Ballad of the Broken Bones”, during which he uses one cell phone to call another on stage, whistles into both and uses the feedback to create a layer of sound for the song. At this performance, and perhaps at others as a new way of keeping the show fresh, he asked everybody in the crowd to dial their neighbor, and the entire audience held the phones together to fill the room with cooperative feedback.
Just a little after midnight the quartet walked off stage, but only for about thirty seconds before rejoining the crowd for an encore. All four walked to the front of the stage for a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”. Sans amplification, only Miller strummed guitar while he and his band mates harmonized the beautiful tune. As the show came to an end two songs later, one man in front of me turned to a friend and asked “Didn’t you just fall in love with them?”.
“Yes”, was the response.