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February 22, 2005

Bridging their sonic extremes, Low tugs heartstrings with bombast, simmer

I guess I have some explaining to do. You must have seen the information box contained within this article and wondered why this review is running now, a good 11 days after the concert. Well, the answer to your query is an easy one. Besides the fact that there was no room to squeeze this little review into an earlier issue of the Maroon, I also needed ample time to ruminate on the proceedings of two Fridays ago at the Metro. Truth is, I was lucky enough to have two of the hottest tickets in town, and I barely deserved it. That requires a little contemplation cum penance, doesn't it?

As payment for my sin of ignorance, let me try to summarize the Low concert as best I can. I hope that my enjoyment of the evening helps to justify my attendance of the show while several friends and acquaintances—all more fervent followers of the Minnesota slowcore trio—were left to fend for themselves in the Chicago cold. Critics' picks in both the Chicago Reader and Newcity had driven the remaining unconverted throngs to the Metro, subsequently filling the venue to capacity, and leaving me embarrassed by my girlfriend's and my guest-list status. Must I feel guilty for my press perks? I'll truly repent in the spring, when I retire for good.

I had hoped to arrive in time to see the set of first opener Tim Rutili, frontman of Thrill Jockey heroes Califone. After parking and leaving three members of our company to the realms of the ticketless, we squeezed into the room just in time to see one song. I really do mean "see," as the chatty crowd drowned out Rutili's take on Califone's "2 Sisters Drunk on Each Other." Normally, I don't mind such disrespect paid to bad openers, but Chicagoan Rutili really deserves better. But maybe I shouldn't be casting stones; I was late, after all.

Second opener Pedro the Lion were both pleasantly, if unsurprisingly, indie and earnest. I suppose you could call them "emo," although I lack the ability to call an emo spade an emo spade. The band actually has a lot going for them: Christian/frontman Dave Bazan, with his Cobain-like voice and un-Cobain lyrics, looks refreshingly like a hockey hooligan rather than, say, Conor Oberst; they rock well and hard; their latest album, Achilles Heel, features art work by the same guy who did the art for the Shins' Chutes Too Narrow; and expert drummer T.W. Walsh apparently has a killer solo album. All told, Pedro the Lion were good enough to almost make me buy their new album.

After cameos with both Tim Rutili and Pedro the Lion, Low singer/guitarist/Conan O'Brien twin Alan Sparhawk finally took the stage with the night's featured guests. Since my knowledge of Low's extensive catalog consisted of the songs on their latest album, The Great Destroyer, I was expecting surprises. The first of these revelations was the trio's unique stage arrangement, as bassist Zak Sally and Sparhawk flanked drummer Mimi Parker, who stood behind her minimalist kit. The intimate and equalizing set up presumably allowed Parker easier access to her mic for her and Sparhawk's trademark gorgeous vocal harmonies.

The 90-minute set ran the gamut of old and new school Low, with many songs falling somewhere in between. Known for being slow, quiet, and brooding, the band has made a career of being the anti-Alternative, channeling this basic aesthetic into a critically lauded, decade-long career. Their first record for Sub Pop finds them louder and poppier and, as a result, probably more commercially successful. The first two songs of the set ably showcased the new Low, as "Monkey"'s brooding is punctuated by a hammering beat, and "California" is just about the sunniest song imaginable about the sadness of old age.

The polarities of Low are perhaps best contrasted with the performance of a new song, and with a song from as recent as 2002. The older song, "(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace" from Trust, is classically slow-burning Low, with harmonies as delicate as those on the original "Amazing Grace," but with a hopelessness foreign to the gospel. On the other end of the spectrum lies Destroyer's "Everybody's Song," a booming song somehow muffled in concert, but musically still complementary of the bitter, angry lyrics. In concert, the song was punctuated by Sparhawk's decidedly ungraceful playing with his teeth, which was as fun as it was shocking for the audience.

Although they may not deal exclusively in slowcore anymore, Low is still far from hardcore, and they still know how to milk some tears with a naked ballad. Songs such as "Walk into the Sea" and "Cue the Strings," although pretty on The Great Destroyer, were perhaps prettier still in concert, buoyed simply by their melodies and free of Dave Fridmann's heavy production. On the day of Arthur Miller's death, Alan Sparhawk's unaccompanied guitar and determined vocal made "Death of a Salesman" seem even more proudly confessional than on record.

And so ends my own confessional. Please, music gods, forgive me for my sins.