Star Theater, Portland, OR 03/18/2019 (Photo: Patrick Weishampel)

On the label adorning the vinyl reissues of their Kranky albums, Low proudly declare that all music within was recorded using analog equipment. The Duluth band, active since the mid-‘90s, has gradually brought its sound along, nudging the almost glacial slowcore dirges of I Could Live in Hope and Long Division towards something more thawed and human, bringing in different producers such as Dave Fridmann and Jeff Tweedy along the way. Still, none of these changes prepared fans for Double Negative, Low’s 2018 radical embrace of electronic music that processed the harmonious embrace of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s vocals to a point where entire songs sounded as if the file had been corrupted. But they weren’t. The members of Low wanted their new music to sound that way and somehow Double Negative is just as beautiful as anything that came before.

It was my fear in the days leading up to the band’s Portland appearance in support of Double Negative that Sparhawk and Parker would want to bring this adventurous touch to their older music, slathering vocal processing on older tracks and reworking them to sound like their newer work. But rather than see a stage covered with laptops and Korg synthesizers, all that waited the crowd was a simple set-up for three musicians: Sparhawk’s array of guitar pedals, Parker’s minimal drum kit and bassist Steve Garrington’s microphone stand.

The band took the stage in near darkness, illuminated from behind by three series of lights that looked like vertical blinds. Sparhawk, wearing a festive sweater, began the show without a word. It wasn’t until the end of the opening number that I realized they were playing “Quorum” from Double Negative, completely stripped of any processing or distortion. It sounded like a totally different song.

It was in this vein the band played it’s 17-song set, with minimal effects. All of the new tracks, including “Always Trying to Work It Out” and “Poor Sucker” were reborn without losing any of the beauty or austerity of the recorded versions. Low interlaced songs from throughout its career (including a masterful version of “Do You Know How to Waltz?” that bled into “Lazy”), cherry-picking favorites such as “Nothing But Heart” and closing with “When I Go Deaf” (with Sparhawk giving a humorous shout-out to Deafheaven who were playing across the street).

The band remained in darkness for the entire set. They said little but when they did, Sparhawk and Parker talked over one another and finished each other’s sentences like a long-married couple. If there was anything to complain about, the band would have played better in a seated venue. More than one of my middle-aged friends griped about back pain during the show. Also, the band ignored their much-loved 2001 album Things We Lost in the Fire.

The sold-out crowd stood in rapt silence through the show, allowing the quiet spaces to truly be quiet. The last time I saw Low was back in 1998, opening for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Parker no longer stands to play the drums but, in many ways, the band and the show were very similar to the one from 20 years ago. It’s Low’s quiet consistency that make the group so beloved, the tiny twists to the sound so interesting, these tentative steps towards the light.

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