Reviews

The Low Anthem: 30 September 2011 - Denver

Photo Credit: Matthew Speck

After more than three years on the road, The Low Anthem has decided to take a well-deserved break. But not before taking one last look around North America.

The Low Anthem

The Low Anthem

City: Denver
Venue: The Larimer Lounge
Date: 2011-09-30

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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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