Friday, July 08, 2011

Divine intervention


At the risk of sounding like a Grumpy Old Man, gigs these days are all too often experiences enjoyable in spite of rather than because of their settings. Increasingly, venues seem to be cavernous, characterless spaces in which you pay through gritted teeth for laughably overpriced fizzy pisswater, much of which ends up slopped on your T-shirt rather than down your neck when you get jostled by the braying, twattish chattermonkeys who encircle you. (Or maybe I'm just fixating too much on the main room of the Academy?)

But every now and again there is perfect synchronicity between artist and environment. Brian Wilson on a Glastonbury Sunday, on a serene, sun-kissed Pyramid Stage, for instance. Or punk mentalists in a sweaty, scuzzy, low-ceilinged underground bunker. Or, as tonight, Low - the band whose core members, husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, are Mormons - performing in a fourteenth-century church.

We enter the building via a modern annexe, though, in which the kitchen has been converted into a temporary bar. When we get to the front of the queue to the serving hatch it takes a lot of willpower to resist the temptation to ask the barman for two glasses of the blood of Christ. You might expect the parishoners overseeing proceedings to look on the procession of lank-haired ATP types filing into the church with all the disdain of a houseproud person watching a visitor carelessly treading dogshit into their carpet - but no, they welcome us with genuine warmth.

Tonight's order of service has Paul Thomas Saunders on first. The Guardian's Paul Lester did young Paul the honour of picking him out for the New Band Of The Day feature, but then the considerable disservice of suggesting he's not much more than a competent Buckley and Yorke copyist. The ethereal grandeur of 'Appointment In Samarra', which finds him intoning ominously about blood on hands and bodies on the ground, is indicative of an ambitious and mature-before-his-time talent.

Ruffling his messy mop between songs, he apologises for his scattiness, attributing it to "irregular sleep patterns" - most recently because he was feverishly assembling handmade sleeves for his latest EP. If anything grates, it's that he looks just a little too pleased with himself, a little too wrapped up in his own world to really care about entertaining anyone else.

As for Low, it's a source of delight just to see them back on stage together. Little has been heard of them since 2007's Drums And Guns - a difficult album by their standards, a departure from the norm and hailed in some quarters as their Kid A. Bassist Matt Livingston, himself a replacement for long-time member Zak Sally, has been replaced by Steve Garrington, and Sparhawk, recovering from the period of mental instability which led Sally to quit, has been occupying himself with side-project the Retribution Gospel Choir.

But when they kick off - with 'Lordy', from their In The Fishtank collaboration with the Dirty Three, appropriately enough - it's like they've never been away. The song's repeated lyric "Lordy, save my soul" underlines that theirs is not a smugly self-satisfied faith, but a frequently insecure, questioning and anguished one.

They then set about reclaiming what's rightfully theirs, 'Silver Rider' and 'Monkey' cutting the creditable covers that Robert Plant included on Band Of Joy back down to size, and follow up with a personal favourite, the pocket epic 'Little Argument With Myself' from 2003's Trust. While Drums And Guns is largely neglected - represented only by 'Murderer', which closes the main set, and a reinterpretated 'Always Fade' - to say that the pronounced emphasis on its predecessor The Great Destroyer (their finest collection, to my mind) is welcome is a gross understatement. Single 'California' is sweet and 'When I Go Deaf' - a request selected ahead of Metallica's 'Master Of Puppets' - is gorgeous and devastating, the sudden erupting storm threatening to shatter the centuries-old stained glass windows into smithereens with all the explosive force of a German bomb.

That said, Low's exceptional power generally lies not in volume but in the absence of it, not in heady release but in tense restraint. Even the quietest strum is loaded with literal and metaphorical resonance, the quietest word a subtle twist of the knife. Slow and deliberate, no one does ominous beauty quite like them.

Tonight's gig is part of a tour curious both for the fact that it doesn't venture to London, Birmingham or Manchester but does take in Cambridge and Leeds and the fact that there's no new record to promote. We are treated to some new material, though, 'Especially Me' and 'Witches' (in which Sparhawk mocks "all you guys out there trying to act like Al Green") making an instant impression as well as signalling a retreat from the experimentalism of Drums And Guns.

Occasionally earthly matters intrude, Sparhawk alluding to the nearby IKEA and prompting an exchange about stonemasonry, but for the most part this is a genuinely religious experience for a congregation which includes a carved crucified Christ looking down from above. As they encore with 'Two Step' and 'Dinosaur Act', I smile at the thought of being in church and knowing all the words.


skif said...

Aye, pretty much as I recall it! Good work!

Ian said...

Sounds like you had a very different setlist from ours:

I can't tell from the post - have you heard C'mon? It almost reads like it's not out in the UK yet...

Ben said...

Ian: That was the idea, because at the time it wasn't! (If I'd actually got the review up soon after the show, it would have made more sense.) Needless to say, I've got C'mon and love it - and heard plenty more of it when I saw them again in Bristol in May. That review will be appearing here at some point too...

Ian said...

Lucky dog.