Live Music + Gig Reviews

Low @ Barbican, London

3 June 2011


C’mon, the ninth album by Minnesota’s enduring Low, is an aggregation of the many strengths contained within their previous albums and shows them to be a band that can still conjure intensity out of the most minimal of components. Tonight’s show at the Barbican would see them play the entire album in confident, almost effortless style.

Support came from Oupa, the side project of Yuck frontman Daniel Blumberg, who played a set of introspective keyboard-based songs, a world away from the guitar-heavy sound of his band.

As Low take to the stage, the most surprising sight is the addition of a fourth band member on keyboards. The worry is that these may disrupt the dynamic of the group, but they are employed with respect, for large periods almost imperceptibly so. It is still the husband and wife duo of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker that are the focal point, their celestial, intertwining vocal harmonies showing no sign of aging or diminishing.

They chose to open the show with Nothing But Heart from the new album, in many ways quite a bold statement given the nature of the song. A solitary line is repeated over a deluge of guitar, forging a resounding crescendo, albeit one that never quite reaches the peaks of the album. This is followed by the pale, nuanced intimacy of Nightingale and the solemn, austere $20 which sees Sparhawk delivering the line “My love is for free, my love” with a foreboding intent. They continue to mine the new album, playing both You See Everything and Especially Me early in the set. Two of the strongest tracks on C’mon, they are almost musical siblings of a kind, and both lyrically dwell on themes of female insecurity, aptly conveyed by Mimi Parker’s vulnerable, caressing, trembling voice.

They dip into 2005’s The Great Destroyer, still arguably their most commercially successful album, on four occasions. During Silver Rider time almost seems to stand still as the vocals, guitars and drums trail away and hang suspended in the momentary void. The dark Pissing seems to have been infiltrated by a malevolent undercurrent, as to an extent does Majesty/Magic which also possesses a restrained, controlled incandescence. Drums & Guns, their strikingly angry and confrontational record, is represented tonight by Breaker and Violent Past, both songs featuring distorted guitars and spare drumming, registering as the hardest-hitting part of the set.

Throughout the show interaction with the audience is kept to a minimum, although just before Witches Sparhawk dedicates the track to his father, remarking mock-dismissively, “I think he had a birthday a few days back. We don’t really keep track of that stuff in our family”. After the following track Especially Me Parker immediately declares “that is dedicated to my mom, whose birthday is on 3rd April”, to an outbreak of laughter amongst the crowd. Otherwise, they simply let the music do the talking.

They encore with the achingly beautiful Two-Step and the sublime desolation of (That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace. The barbed guitars of Canada briefly raises the volume before Laser Beam closes the set, acting as a reminder that they are at their best when they are at their quietest, slowest and most fragile. Sparhawk’s occasionally fractious relationship with music and touring has been documented elsewhere (most vividly culminating in his guitar-wrecking performance at the 2008 End Of The Road festival) but their decision to play a career-spanning, populist set tonight shows a band fully at ease, comfortably accepting their role with grace and humility.

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