“It feels like VH1 up here…”
“It feels like VH1 up here…”
Out of context, this is not a phrase you would associate with Low, the acclaimed group from Duluth known for their often sparse, mournful style and haunting harmonies. But the intimate, elegant space at Constellation in Chicago, which feels more like a community theater than a concert venue (bands perform on a “stage” that is flush with the main seats) did lend a feeling of closeness to the evening—as close to a Low episode of “Storytellers” as we’ll get.
On this particular evening, it was hard to take one’s eyes off Alan Sparhawk. His voice sounded as strong and powerful as ever, and his way of physically inhabiting the songs, mirroring their emotional contours in the torsions of his body, was a thrill to behold. His guitar playing made extraordinary use of the deceptively simple pedal setup before him, allowing him to play as softly as possible while maintaining the rhythmic pulse of a song and then, at a moment’s notice, kicking into overdrive with distortion and delay, generating the “broken” sound that is associated with his solos, which come off like a kind of deconstruction of the instrument.
Mimi Parker, vocally accompanying Sparhawk on most songs with her own inimitable timbre, played the drums with characteristic grace, and bassist Steve Garrington (celebrating his 10th year in the group) showed how integral he is to the menace and weight of their material, occasionally switching back and forth from bass to keyboards on the same song.
The generous setlist (16 songs plus a two-song encore) reached all the way back to their first album, featuring “Fear” from I Could Live in Hope. They also played the fan favorite “Dinosaur Act” from 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire, as well as “Pissing” from the 2005 release, The Great Destroyer, and “Murderer” from 2007’s Drums and Guns.
Naturally, much of the setlist was culled from their most recent effort, Ones and Sixes, which was recorded in Justin Vernon’s studio and released in 2015. Those songs exemplify the leaner, tauter yet crisply produced style the band has developed lately, arguably sacrificing some of the earlier work’s experimentalism in favor of a more song-forward approach that emphasizes the emotional depth of their lyrics, which confront human relationships with a rare honesty.
They also played at least as many new songs, material that sat comfortably between their most recent output and the earlier work that cemented their reputation among fans and critics alike. Though they are on the whole a reserved band in their onstage demeanor, the trio appeared relaxed, with Sparhawk joking about the band’s tendency to interrupt its own rehearsals with conversations about podcasts they had listened to recently.
For their last song (much to the audience’s excitement), they played “When I Go Deaf,” which, more and more, feels like their ultimate song—a romantic and redemptive song that directly confronts loss, sorrow and defeat while never losing sight of the power of faith and belief. In their 25th year together, Low is still raging against the dying of the light.