Thursday, 12 July 2012

In Review: 'Low' and Nat Johnson at Lancaster Library

Low and Nat Johnson at Lancaster Library, 9 July 2012
Review by Marion Dawson for Virtual-Lancaster

There are lots of jokes about Minnesota's 'quiet' indie rock band, Low (http://chairkickers.com/).  One is, apparently, that their fans are 'just a bunch of librarians'.  This isn't the first time I've heard such a joke at a Get it loud in libraries gig.  We laugh politely and wait for them to play another amazing song.

If you've not been to a Get it Loud in Libraries gig yet, where have you been?  Libraries are a great place to experience music, especially good music, and GiLiL have a knack for selecting the best – usually just before it 'hits the big time', as they point out in their excellent website.  There's no spilt beer, no leary men, and you can bring your kids too, if you want.  Bonus.  And, unlike the last gig I went to (Bruce Springsteen at the Manchester City 'Etihad' Stadium), you actually, like, have a chance of being able to see the band.

Nat Johnson
This is pretty exciting for me tonight, since I've seen Low (who are a little more long in the tooth than GiLiL's usual fare) a few times, but never in such a small venue.  We start though with Sheffield's Nat Johnson, who is also excited about supporting her heroes, and visibly nervous.  It would have been nice to hear her belt her gentle acoustic songs out a little more confidently (she usually performs with backing band The Figureheads).  But it's a pleasant opener none-the-less.

For 20 years, Low have been playing beautiful, solemn, somewhat ethereal rock music with a minimum of instrumentation and fuss.  It's hard to describe in words, maybe because their music evokes such an emotional experience.  Critics resort to name-tags like 'slowcore' and 'quietcore' (both of which, predictably, the band reject).

Low are not actually that quiet.  At least they haven't been since around 1999, when I started listening to them.  'Minimal' would be a better word - for the band comprises just one electric guitar, bass 2 drums and 2 cymbals.  But the library this evening is an ocean of pleasant, elegiac and overwhelming noise, which stuns most of the audience into awed silence.

Apparently people used to talk over Low's early gigs.  Not anymore.  The audience tonight, who range from mid-20s to 50s, are rapt, unwilling to miss a single note or perfectly timed silence (The silences in Low's songs are just as important as the noisy bits).  It would not feel appropriate to whoop, yet some of us do manage to dance.

Low can also be angry.  It seeps out in the quiet malevolence of songs like 'Murderer' and 'Violent past' from the 'Drums and Guns' album, and in their intermittent discordant moments.  This sonic / emotional juxtaposition – and the skill with which it is executed - is what makes Low such an extraordinary band.  It can also be heard in Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's vocals: his all fiery, masculine bluster; hers exact and harmonious.  

Perhaps it is the sense of a shadowy pent up rage lying just below the surface which gives Low's more delicate and joyful moments their edge ('Nightingale', 'I'm nothing but heart').  If all beauty is fragile and temporary (as Low have surely learned in 20 years of gigging) then we must hold on all the more tightly.  Before one song, Sparhawk jokes that he needs to 'prepare himself for desperation'.  Chuckling, I realise we are not so much a room of librarians as rock and roll depressives.

Low themselves are no teenage angst miserablists.  They've earned the right (and the age) to be taken more seriously than that.  Although their music is secular, there is an echo at times of near-religious fervor.  It may make sense at this juncture to note that core members Parker and Sparhawk are both practicing Mormons and have been married for over 20 years.  They're deadly serious.

And also professionals.  There's not a note or a pause out of place in this performance (which is just as well, because everyone is holding their breaths).
So I wait until the final notes to dash to the toilet queue, where I spot the oddly incongruous sight of Low trying vainly to get into their dressing room (a library meeting room), for which they have lost or been given the wrong code.

It takes the fans just a few minutes to realise this and, with nowhere to run to, the band are forced to pose for cheesy photos.  Although this whole scene strikes me as odd, rather like meeting Barry White at the 24 hour garage, or Diana Ross in Home Bargains, it's good to see the band don't take themselves too seriously.

• Tickets for the show cost £17.50.  For photos and details of upcoming Get it Loud in Libraries gigs, see: www.getitloudinlibraries.com or call into Lancaster Library in Market Square / New Street.

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