City: Vancouver, British Columbia Venue: The Drink Date: 2004-02-07
Photo credit: K. Raschke
For a concert whose early fuse sputtered damp as the surrounding Vancouver evening, with very early sound problems leading to a frustrated lineup outside, and an opening act -- Victoria's Chet -- that struggled gamely through as a result, it sure managed to pull things out of the fire by the end.
Not that Chet themselves left little impression. A short, six-song set was enough to drape the fairly ostentatious club surroundings in dark, melancholy, post-rock gauze (please search opener: "The Cold Drank My Soul Away Into the Day"); a mournful guitar/cello/organ/drums ensemble fumbling and occasionally scoring around the margins of pop and (post) rock, that happened to feature yet more songs from Canadians about the explorer Ernest Shackleton (the penultimate "Antarctica"), who honestly appears to be the subject of a kind of national obsession these days.
All of which helps anticipate, suggest, then tentatively offer up the precious frosty ambience of Duluth's Low: honorary Canadians if ever I've encountered such a creature -- a band that hails from the "Canada of America" (Minnesota), who are subtle and humble in their spiritual convictions, who seem to exhibit none of the hubris and au courant self-regard of many of their contemporaries south of the border, and who even feature an actual song called "Canada" (played here as the first encore).
However familiar you may be with Low's recorded output, the live experience remains a revelation. I was feeling tired and cranky (or, um, Kranky) and, as it turned out, embarking on the first steps of a two-day full-immersion 102-degree fever-gauntlet, but from the opening notes of new song "Murderer", I was captivated by the extra dimensions that the visual dynamics of this compelling three-piece provide. Alan Sparhawk, stage-right and quietly intense, plied his trademark sheet-glass alto vocals and sparsely picked electric guitar (Telecaster and, occasionally a 12-string electric); Zak Sally provided occasional voice backing, but mostly drove in the pegs for a solid bass foundation; while the five-months-pregnant Mimi Parker kept time standing (feet-achingly still) at a minimal drum kit, clothing her husband's chilly fragility in warm fecund scarves of harmonic femininity. The result was so much greater than the sum of its parts that I was more awestruck by my overall sensory response (no doubt encouraged by beer and Tylenol) than by my capitulation to the cliché that opens this sentence.
Live, Alan Sparhawk's voice is a marvel. Like the sparrowhawk his name vaguely suggests, it may lack the eagle's grandeur, or the owl's understated malevolence, but when it soars, swoops, hovers and drops in its precision dive, the effect is one of sheer controlled, concentrated power.
And to shift the metaphor slightly, if Sparhawk represents the exact strokes of a fine-point pen, Mimi Parker is all charcoal washes, warm and deep and fertile. The magic created by the intersection and confluence of their voices goes beyond words into something simultaneously visceral and metaphysical.
The band apologized more than once for the number of new songs in their fifteen-song set, but to be honest, it didn't matter. Sure, stalwarts such as "Dinosaur Act", "In Metal" or "Point of Disgust" were conspicuously and lamentably absent, the latter two even acknowledged by the band during the encore (Low's essential minimalism having extended to their not bringing along a piano, for instance), but newer offerings such as opener "Murderer", or "Poor Daughter", or "Silver Rider", were so absorbing in their intensity that they more than made up for it. The guitar crescendo on "Poor Daughter", for instance, was as coruscating and deeply turbulent as anything by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. By this token, the new full-length should be an aircraft hangar roar of shimmering tenebrous sound, dark and powerful in its way as one of the sombre secular gods in the band's great pantheon, Joy Division.
Familiar songs they did play, however, included an audience-participation "La La La Song" from Trust ("Watch Mr. Sally for the [handclap] cues!"), a gorgeous "Two-Step" from Secret Name, and a stunning, intimate "Closer" from Things We Lost in the Fire. Not to mention an aching, shining "Tonight" and that crazy "Canada" song, our entire country serving as an apparent metaphor for the afterlife, somehow life-affirming and inclusive whatever politics or faith happen to spin your motor.
The thing is, Low risk coming across as aloof, hermetically sealed and distant as alien spoor on a frigid world. Alan and Mimi's idealized intimacy, in less deft hands, could easily serve as an exclusion zone for the rest of us, rebuffing our fascination while simultaneously courting it with such stark yet beautiful melodies. A promising but unsatisfying tease, in other words. Somehow, however, they manage to achieve both warmth and self-sufficiency, through their vaulted music, and through an unassuming stage presence which extends to chatting easily with fans after the show. This should be no surprise -- no indie-elitists would dream of (unironically) covering songs by artists as disparate and populist as John Denver and the Bee Gees in their decade-spanning catalogue, but still -- for a band who opened for Radiohead in the world's massed stadiums just last summer, it was endearing and almost bewildering to be able to chat on this unremarkable stage with a weary Mimi about her second trimester blues while she dismantled her own drums -- or with Alan as he unplugged his gear and quietly updated anyone who wished to know (I asked about Rivulets specifically) on the entire Chairkickers stable.
Earnest as it sounds, the members of Low come across as real people, with hopes and dreams for their children, a collective awe in the face of beauty, and a sense of the disquiet and sorrow lurking behind most things.
Deceptively passive, patient and sonically pregnant (the spare instruments starkly present; the spaces in between quivering, expectant), the Low live experience resonates and delivers for a long time afterward -- fever dreams or no fever dreams -- marking the reverent passage of a musically and spiritually devout trio who nonetheless remain inspiringly blasphemous before the sneering altar of fad, fashion and the world's terrible wrongs.
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