Wild Mercury Sound

Low: London Barbican, June 3, 2011

John Mulvey

There is something deeply weird about seeing four people onstage at a Low gig. In recent years, it has often seemed as if Alan Sparhawk, in particular, has sought to transcend or subvert people’s expectations of how Low should sound. Surely, though, filling out the sound with a keyboard player is tantamount to sacrilege?

As it turns out, the recruitment of Eric Pollard, who also plays drums alongside Sparhawk and bassist Steve Garrington in Retribution Gospel Choir, mostly works just fine. His keyboard work is largely restricted to discreet drones, barely noticeable. It’s only when he’s not playing – on something as brutal as “Majesty/Magic”, say – that you realise how much of Low’s signature sound depended on space between the notes.

Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s great talent, though, has been to slowly modify Low’s signature sound; they have, after all, been adding textures since “Songs For A Dead Pilot”, nearly 15 years ago. Pollard’s most notable innovation, perhaps – besides his aesthetically jarring red spectacles – is his harmonies, which slip in from time to time to flesh out the patented Sparhawk/Parker blend. Again, discretion is key, and Pollard never detracts from the uncanny husband/wife harmonies. On “Something’s Turning Over”, though, his presence crystallises the song’s relationship with the genteel end of the ‘60s folk revival: Low sound, remarkably, like the Peter, Paul & Mary of the apocalypse.

This excellent, longish show begins with a set piece display of their new power: a short “Le Noise” squall from Sparhawk, then a hefty version of “Nothing But Heart”, as pummelling as the version on “C’Mon”, even without the assistance of Nels Cline. Not for the last time tonight, the sheer volume of the harmonies is striking, as is the precision with which the quartet play. For much of the gig, Sparhawk gives the compelling impression of a man who can only just hold his Neil Young fantasies in check: on “Witches”, in particular, the tension between Low’s tight structures and his possible heroics seems palpable.

After nearly an hour and a half he does crack, more or less, on “Violent Past” and “Breaker”, the latter sounding as much like its Retribution Gospel Choir incarnation as the Low original take. There’s a sense, though, that the band are constantly reworking all their songs: although they play all of “C’Mon”, much of it has evolved – become darker, perhaps – now. “Especially Me”, for instance, has an ominous, thrumming undertow to it which it shares with “Monkey” and “Canada” here. Elsewhere, Parker’s drumkit might not have expanded, but her technique has, so that “You See Everything” has a charming jazz shuffle going on.

Always, though, there’s that meticulous and overarching grasp of dynamics, with the core value of the band always visible. Along with “Canada”, the encore features “Two Step”, “Laser Beam” and “That’s How You Sing Amazing Grace”, spare and brilliant reiterations of how the Parker/Sparhawk blend is one of the most distinctive and, to me at least, powerful sounds of the last 20 years.

As mentioned relentlessly (cryptically or otherwise) these past few weeks, I’ve been playing the new Gillian Welch album a lot, and it strikes me there are strange congruities between the Low pair and Welch and David Rawlings: all those Neil Young and Richard & Linda Thompson allusions; the intuitive harmonies and a calm musical aesthetic which might tentatively be described as passionate austerity. Whatever, “C’Mon” and “The Harrow And The Harvest” are two of the year’s best, I’d say, and this was a fine show. Anyone else there?

SETLIST

1 Nothing But Heart

2 Nightingale

3 You See Everything

4 Monkey

5 Silver Rider

6 Witches

7 Especially

8 $20

9 Pissing

10 Last Snowstorm Of The Year

11 Try To Sleep

12 Done

13 Majesty/Magic

14 Something’s Turning Over

15 California

16 Breaker

17 Violent Past
~
18 Two Step

19 That’s How You Sing Amazing Grace

20 Canada

21 Laser Beam


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