19 Oct 2001: Bowery Ballroom New York
Low, Obscured by Crowds
In the wake of recent events here in New York City—and elsewhere, it goes without saying—the idea of an hour or so in the company of Low was highly attractive, the band’s soothing, quietly contemplative songs promising a temporary haven from an increasingly ugly and dangerous world. Indeed, the very title of the band’s recent album—Things We Lost in the Fire—achieves a new resonance in light of the September 11th tragedies, perhaps evoking the loss of life, innocence and a sense of security.
Prior to that anticipated communion with the band from Duluth, however, the audience was treated to some (no-less welcome) comic relief.
There’s something brilliantly ironic about having Michael Gira—formerly of Swans, one of the most confrontational, cacophonous, melody-free bands of the ‘80s—preface a set by one of the quietest, nicest, most low-key and tuneful indie groups of the moment.
But it gets funnier when Gira starts playing. Of course, Swans underwent a massive identity change in the late ‘80s and Gira has been making more accessible, melodic music for years now but, for those who remember early Swans, it’s still a little odd to see Gira perform seated, with an acoustic guitar and music stand, exchanging between-song pleasantries with the crowd.
Gira is a man possessed of a singularly beautiful baritone drone but a complete inability, or unwillingness, to sing. His performance consists almost exclusively of minimal—almost irrelevant—one-or-two-note strumming as the monotonous backdrop to epic, wordy songs with lyrics so absurd that you marvel at how he manages to deliver them with a straight face.
Listening to Gira is like listening to some kind of a “musical” anti-motivational tape. Late-Swans fare such as “Failure” (“I’ve learned one thing / You can’t escape the beast / In the null and void pit of failure”) and “God Damn the Sun” (“God damn the sun / God damn anyone who says a kind word”) and recent Angels of Light tracks such as “My Suicide” are not feel-good numbers. For the most part, his relentlessly dark narratives were received with a mixture of chin-stroking intensity, closed eyes, and brooding, moody looks—as if we were in the presence of some kind of transcendent art. You could almost hear the thought processes: “hey, like, this is depressing as hell and really obvious and easy to understand—wow, like, this must be great poetry”.
But, of course, the whole thing was inherently comedic and it was refreshing to see that Gira himself has a sense of irony, littering his inter-song banter with self-deprecating comments about their themes. Responding to the crowd’s enthusiastic reception of “My Suicide”, he muttered something along the lines of “you guys love it when I kill myself”.
During the course of his set Gira made several references to Low, informing the crowd that they were one of his favourite bands and proclaiming their direct link with the Carter Family. This was all very neighbourly, but Low didn’t really need his endorsement to convince an audience that had come exclusively to see them.
Having taken the stage almost unnoticed, the Duluth band began their set as they meant to continue, in a characteristically understated fashion. Featuring Mimi Parker (standing behind a drum kit so stripped-down that it makes Robert Gotobed’s set-up look like that of Phil Collins), husband Alan Sparhawk on guitar and bassist Zak Sally, the trio make few concessions to the rock context in which they operate—beyond the occasional swell and sting of electric guitar that peppers their hushed, measured songs.
Although Low drew on earlier albums like 1995’s Long Division for numbers such as “Throw Out the Line” and 1999’s Secret Name for “Starfire”, the audience was clearly most familiar with the band’s more recent work, the opening notes of numbers like “Sunflower”, “Embrace”, and “Dinosaur Act” from Things We Lost in the Fire drawing the biggest reactions. “Sunflower” showcased the majestic vocal interplay of Sparhawk and Parker, while the mournful “Embrace” foregrounded Parker’s hauntingly sad melody, as well as the band’s subtle shifts in intensity. “Dinosaur Act” was the closest they came to rock, as Sparhawk coaxed some controlled flourishes out of his instrument in the lead-up to the song’s modest climax.
But it’s precisely the question of Low’s relationship to rock that’s the sticking point and that, in my experience at least, undermines their effectiveness as a live band. The paradox of Low—whose sound is closer to folk music but whose audience is a rock audience—was their undoing last night, albeit through no fault of their own. Their unique, spare songs are beautifully crafted exercises in texture and shifting dynamics that demand the close attention of the listener. However, it’s impossible to give their music that attention in a rock context such as that of a packed Bowery Ballroom.
Unless you’re right in front of the stage, it’s difficult to appreciate Low in this setting. This is not the kind of music to listen to as you stand in extreme discomfort, being jostled and crushed in the sold-out venue, having Michael Gira bump into you not once but four times as he makes his way to and fro in the crowd, as well as hearing residual conversations and glass-chinking from the bar in one ear. Granted, Low fans seem to be incredibly polite—it was all “excuse me"s, “sorry"s, and “thank you"s—but that doesn’t change the fact that these are not the optimal conditions in which to experience the band’s performance. (Even the criminally mulleted, hirsute bouncer was kindly whispering to people and asking them to obey the fire codes and not block passageways.)
The essential elements of Low’s music—its fragility, its subtlety, its delicate pacing—are all lost when you are unable to focus fully on it. The unreleased track “John Prine”, for instance, which in places is reduced to the sparsest of elements, became sub-background music—as did the Smiths cover, “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”. The complete absurdity of the situation was underscored when, during one of the quieter moments of “Throw Out the Line”, someone’s cell phone started ringing. At a rock gig, you shouldn’t even be able to hear a cell phone. And yes, the comeback is, “ah but Low aren’t a rock band and this is not a rock gig”. To which I say, why on earth play in a rock environment then?
Make no mistake, none of this is intended as a dismissal of Low or their performance. It’s simply a criticism of the choice of venue. And that is an important consideration—after all, this was a live performance. Low are not a rock band and a seated theatre-setting would be more suited to them: there would be no distractions, no one getting pissed off about having to be quiet, no cell phones. It would allow audiences to encounter the group’s music in all its hushed, unhurried glory. Last night, for me at least, it was impossible to do that.