Low @ Bowery Ballroom, April 27th, 2011
Photos: Chris; Review: Michael Koene
As Low took the stage at Bowery Ballroom, each member dressed all in black, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. After all, these gents and lady are the purported progenitors of “slowcore,” a style of rock music which is presumably played very slowly. Two of the founding members are Mormon. I had also heard that Low fans were known for sitting down on the floor at shows. Then there’s the name of the band. Low. Were they going to play quietly as well? I mean, listening to an intimate album in the privacy of one’s own home is one thing but when you’re in the midst of a ballroom’s worth of people, it can be a little awkward. Or worse, boring.
I needn’t have worried. From the moment Low plunged into the opening tune, “Point of Disgust,” with spare piano notes plucking glassy, campfire shimmers from the air, the stage was set and the spell was cast. The effect on the crowd was nothing short of mass hypnosis. Or maybe that was just me. These guys were the real deal. The first thing that struck me was the uncanny vocal synergy between singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk and singer/drummer Mimi Parker (which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the two are married and have been bandmates for 17 years). But more than a surprise, it was a revelation. It was physically impossible for these two to produce a harmony that wasn’t a joy for the ears. And this despite the fact that they are both very different kinds of singers. Where Mimi is imperious and perfect, Alan is gravelly and wounded. It seemed like every note he sang was a labor of love and it suddenly became clear to me why a band might build an entire repertoire of songs on the idea of restraint. When you have two vocalists in a band who are capable of this kind of magic, it’s almost blasphemous to complicate things.
And yes, the music was “low.” In a really apocalyptic kind of way. As the band launched into “Try To Sleep” from their latest release, C’mon, the campfire-at-the-end-of-the-world mood was palpable. “You try to sleep, but then you never wake up.”
The set was heavy on tunes from the new album, which in this case, wasn’t a bad thing at all (the album is excellent). Country-fried ballads “You See Everything” and “Done” revealed a debt to (and mastery of) the CSNY school of vocal harmony, while simmering torch-rockers like “Nothing But Heart” and “When I Go Deaf,” from 2005’s The Great Destroyer, showcased Sparhawks’ majestically flawed lead guitar work. Longtime fans got a treat at the beginning of the (first) encore, when Low broke into “Sunflower” from their critically acclaimed 2001 release, Things We Lost In The Fire. At the end of the second encore, Sparhawk thanked the band and audience and blew a kiss before leaving the stage for good.
While listening to Low, it’s easy to forget that they aren’t the newest flavor of the month band from Brooklyn. Well, at least for a couple of seconds at a time. For while their sound is still as fresh as anything out there, they have a couple of things that are lacking in many of the newer bands who have borrowed the most obvious aspects of their style. Like great, simple melodies bereft of trickery, a real grasp of tension and dynamics which extends beyond the usual quiet/loud dichotomy into realms of infinite variation and most importantly, heart. There wasn’t a second of last night’s performance that I didn’t believe was coming from somewhere real. And for roughly an hour and a half, the starry net of dreams that Low cast over the Bowery Ballroom was the only reality that mattered.