Uncut Editor's Diary
The Low Anthem, Joe Pug – The Tabernacle, London, November 18 2009
Joe Pug? No, I hadn’t heard of him either, before he opened tonight for The Low Anthem. Count me as a fan now, though. Pug’s a potentially major song-writing talent, as evidenced on his Nation Of Heat EP, available online and really quite brilliant. But who exactly is he?
Well, turns out he’s a 23-year old former student of the University Of North Carolina, where he studied playwriting before dropping out and moving to Chicago. There, he worked as a carpenter when there were jobs going, otherwise starved, and also wrote the scorching songs on Nation Of Heat that in delivery and content will make you think of John Prine, Paul Seibel and, inevitably, Dylan. You will therefore also think of, say Josh Ritter and AA Bondy, two other terrific younger writers of thoughtful, literate, moving songs.
Tonight he’s on briefly and early, which means a lot of people miss his opening couple of songs. But as the central hall of this Notting Hill venue fills up towards the end of his set, you can feel a buzz of collective acknowledgement that something special’s going on.
By then, he would have been playing either “Hymn 101”, a stand-out track on the EP, or the more recent anti-war song, “Bury Me Far From My Uniform”, an angry lament whose clear-eyed fury would have won approval from Phil Ochs.
Not long after this, as the house lights fall, shadowy appear figures on stage, and something that sounds like the distant skirl of bagpipes or something similarly ancient but which turns out in fact to be a sombre harmonium or pump organ drone, initially shapeless, a passing mood, begins to fill the hall, the audience immediately hushed and attentive.
This is The Low Anthem, of course – Ben Knox Miller on, for the moment at least, guitar, harmonica and vocals, Jeff Prystowky on double bass, Jocie Adams on whatever she’s playing, plus newly-enlisted fourth member Matt Davidson – and what they’re now playing is “To The Ghosts Who Write History Books”, one of several great songs from this year’s breakout album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, a runner-up in this year’s Uncut Music Award.
The evening’s musical template is established early, and is familiar from said album. What the Low Anthem deliver is largely hushed, unhurried, mesmerising and quietly delirious. The mood, more often than not, is low-key and tends towards the sombre, as a rule, on songs like “This God Damn House” and “Senorita”, from 2006’s What the Crow Brings LP, and Charlie Darwin favourites like the breathtaking “Ticket Taker”, “To Ohio” – “our hit single!” - the astonishingly fragile “Cage The Songbird, new songs like “Smoke Myself To Sleep”, and, of course, the album’s supernaturally beautiful title track.
People who haven’t seen them live may be forgiven for thinking of The Low Anthem as precious, somewhat serious types, straitlaced and even perhaps humourless. They are, of course, nothing of the sort. There’s a lot of wry humour about what they do and who they are and tonight there’s much hilarity when after the opening song, Miller suddenly quits the stage, followed by a baffled look from Prystowsky.
Miller returns wearing the kind of 70’s wraparound shades you may remember Keith Richards or Lou Reed wearing back then, or maybe even Elton John in his coked-up heyday, an accessory for which he immediately apologises. He’s had to put them on because, he says, laughing at his own predicament – a first as far as I can remember - he’s suffering an allergic reaction to some carrots he’s eaten backstage. Some things, clearly, you just couldn’t make up, and Miller relishes the moment’s surreal cast.
Elsewhere, they indulge a fondness for rowdy gospel mayhem on the rollicking “Home I’ll Never Be” (words: Jack Kerouac, music: Tom Waits) and the apocalyptic hootenanny barn-burner “The Horizon Is A Beltway”. They have a taste, also, for the bawdy end of the blues, given voice here, particularly, on a rousing version of the Reverend Gary Davis’s “Sally, Where You Get Your Liquor From?”, which recalls the raucous fatalism of Dylan’s Together Through Life.
“What a band,” someone shouts hoarsely in one brief lull between transcendent moments. “What a fucking band!”
He had a point. Book your tickets now for next February’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire and see you there.