Monday, April 18, 2011

The Concertgoer: Low & Halloween, Alaska

Going to concerts alone is one of my least favorite things to do, and yet here I was, solo, at Low’s First Avenue show. Strangely, many of my fellow concertgoers also seemed to be attending alone. I hadn’t considered it beforehand, but this makes sense. Low’s music—especially that of their earlier years—sounds best in the dark of the night, soundtracking those sleepless moments and confused soulsearching. You can listen to Low with other people, or watch them perform in a crowd of several hundred, but their music is not really a communal experience. It’s often hushed, as if whispered, and the words dwell on topics like dreamlife and mental illness—things that we can only experience alone.
The days when Low fans sat on the ground during performances are long gone, but their performances are still intimate, even in their louder moments. This night, Low were well-equipped for higher volumes, playing with an unexpected fourth member. The Duluth, MN band are a trio—Steve Garrington is the latest in a rotating cast of bassists—but they were joined by a sunglasses-clad Eric Pollard, who is a member of the side project Retribution Gospel Choir. He played keyboards and sang backup vocals, both barely audible.

Low’s core is Alan and Mimi Parker, married Mormons whose vocal harmonies fill the open spaces of the band’s music. Mimi’s approach to percussion is minimalist: she plays standing up with a small kit, holding a mallet in her left hand and a brush in her right. Alan has become something of a guitar hero lately, but he still explores slower tempos. He held back on his often-disturbing banter, but contorts his hand whenever he’s not playing guitar.

At First Avenue, Low favored cuts from their last three albums. No complaints here, they’re all great, although the just-released C’mon is the weakest among them. If we’re being simplistic*, the new album basically moves Low into Neil Young territory, exploring the sweetness and dread of acoustic Neil while making a detour into Crazy Horse antics. Not all of C’mon’s mid-tempo numbers connected, but most of the new material sounded great. Hearing Mimi’s voice flood the room on “Especially Me” was beautiful, and the slow rise into soulful feedback on “Nothing But Heart” is as great live as it is on record.

Low’s older material has been expertly honed. Individual songs are difficult to pick, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Breaker,” “Sunflower,” and “Canada.” That last song rode a runaway bassline to total immersion. It was the penultimate tune in an encore of older material, capped by “When I Go Deaf.”

“Deaf” is a song about hearing loss and the insularity that comes with it, with plaintive vocals from both Parkers that are followed by post-chorus bursts of frustrated distortion. It captures what Low do best. It’s beautiful but disquieting. And in the dark confines of First Avenue, it makes complete sense.

Halloween, Alaska opened the show. They're a local concern whose sound recalls the subdued clarity of the American Analog Set (Low's one-time peers). They work towards noisier finales, but keyboard-driven atmospherics color their songs. Halloween, Alaska sometimes utilize a electronic percussion--making them sound like Hot Chip--which was mostly distracting. They do quiet well, their low-key charm a fitting aperitif for the group that's made an art and a career out of hushed.

*And why not?—the previous two records got pegged as the loud one and the electronic one, which is fairly accurate.

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