For a band that have consistently been churning out critically-acclaimed albums since the early ’90, have had their songs covered by Robert Plant, and are signed to the Sub Pop — the label that signed Nirvana and Sleater-Kinney — Low seem to be hitting a new stride in 2015. Their latest album, Ones and Sixes, is full of some of their most catchy yet vulnerable work to date. Performing live, the band members seem to communicate among themselves almost telepathically, their emotional and technical maturity yielding an engrossing show.
Freshly back from an October European tour, Low arrived triumphantly back in the United States with last night’s headlining show in the Mainroom at First Avenue, packing the place on a Wednesday night. It was one of the few shows in recent memory at First Avenue that did away with the barricade and allowed fans to get as close to the stage as possible, conjuring a sense of intimacy. The reasoning behind this? “They’re just too cool,” according to a stagehand.
Low took the stage without fanfare right when they were scheduled, and Mimi Parker began drumming the staccato introduction to Ones and Sixes album opener “Gentle.” Low are often most powerful during their most minimal. Steady, building rhythm, courtesy of Parker and bassist/keyboardist Steve Garrington, combined with either the solo or combined vocal efforts of Parker and her husband, frontman Alan Sparhawk, are the foundation of almost every Low song. But like exposed beams in a building, revealing the foundation makes it easier to grasp of the essence of the whole. The band work seamlessly together to assure the various elements of their formula – the male/female tandem falsetto, fastidious drums, and guitar feedback – remain fresh and compelling.
As “Gentle” turned into lead single “No Comprende,” Parker and Sparhawk’s strange, almost-mournful duet continued to expose new depths to their willingness to open up emotionally on stage. The creeping intensity of this song and the next, “Monkey” from 2006’s The Great Destroyer, helped the noise and the darkness within these songs seep out slowly as to not overwhelm the listener, bringing the audience to each climax after the proper amount of buildup. When the band reach these points, it seems as if they are purposively burning down the foundation they worked so steadily to build, reflecting the truth behind Parker’s voice clearly mourning that “our house is on fire” during “No Comprende.”
A comfortable wall of noise sheltered the band for a few songs, including an extremely feedback-heavy rendition of “On My Own” before again succumbing to emotional excess during highlight “Spanish Tribulation.” It’s rare to find a band with two vocalists who are both clear and melodic with a hint of melancholy, but Low have exactly that. “What Part of Me” served as a highlight of the second half of their set, showcasing the strength of their new material.
The audience were a fairly homogenous (the two men standing next to me were literally wearing the same exact outfit — a Low shirt that featured an outline of Minnesota, coupled with flannel and a healthy amount of facial hair) yet absolutely enthusiastic group of respectable patrons. This is possibly the first show I have ever been to where an audience member towards the back yelled out asking “How’s everyone doing?” and the band replied, instead of the usual clichéd banter reversal.
The obvious comfort Low find playing their home state showed throughout — smiles were coaxed out of the band, and artists as disparate as Cheap Trick and Cee-lo Green were discussed during quick breaks from songs. They also treated the crowd to not just an encore but a double encore, the surprises of the night continuing on to the very end. “Thank you for making this night so special,” Sparhawk earnestly thanked the crowd after the first encore.
Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf was the exact sort of act you’d expect to open up for a band like Low – simple, gently melancholy tunes built only on acoustic guitar and Shauf’s expressive singing. He earned the rapt attention of those who arrived early. Tangled up in deep blue lighting throughout most of his set, he was a reminder that the genre of men with sad songs and acoustic guitars still still has some fresh, engrossing new talent left in it.
After more than two decades of music, the fact that Low are not only able to produce consistently well-received music but also find room to explore new territory – whether that be emotional vulnerability or a surrender to the melodic – is a feat few longstanding independent bands can claim. Low continue to find the right balance – of softness and noise, remaining exposed while impenetrable, of structed sound and chaos – that makes them one of Minnesota’s most revered musical treasures.
On My Own
What Part of Me
Will the Night
When I Go Deaf
Thank you @lowtheband for recalibrating my pulse, slowing down my jackrabbit heart, opening my vessels, letting it all in.
— Andrea Swensson (@SlingshotAnnie) November 12, 2015
Hannah Marie Hron is a student at Hamline University who hopes to continue a career in music journalism after graduation. Besides Low, she is also enthusiastic about dissonant noise and female bass players.