Monday, February 21, 2005

Slow and Steady Wins The Race

Well I promised posts over the weekend, and have failed in my duty largely due to vegetating in front of Snooker on the TV (if there is a true genius in sport right now, it’s surely Ronnie O’Sullivan, anything but slow and steady this weekend – more frantic and unstoppable). Nevertheless, whilst only really half awake, I did make it to the Royal Festival Hall to catch Low, a band I’ve been meaning to see live for years, and have never quite got round to it. Perhaps sleepiness is not the best state to be in for this band, even with the slightly weightier material from their new album, they are still as stately and understated as ever.

Still – sleep was not an option during the mercifully brief set from the London Dirthole Collective. What a cacophony! Four percussionists beat out exactly the same perfunctory rhythms on their skeletal drum kits, guitarists stab at spiky two chord riffs, and the singer babbles incomprehensible gibberish tunelessly over the top. It was either riotous genius or mindless crap. I err towards the latter.

Second support act Kid Dakota made for a welcome contrast. Yet another two-piece band (although they were joined by Low’s Zak Sally on bass for the final few songs), they had some powerful moments, thanks largely to the singer’s distinctive, slightly abrasive voice, and an unusually aggressive take on the usual Americana influences. Low have been touring the States with Pedro the Lion (and particularly aware readers will recognise that the title of this post is a reference to that band) – what a treat that would have been. Despite the manifest qualities of Kid Dakota, probably a prospect I would have relished a good deal more than this uneasy, confrontational line-up.

Low themselves were reliably sublime – and, perhaps more surprisingly, a rare lesson in how to craft a world of intriguing sounds from a bank of guitar effects pedals. Laden with reverb, Alan Sparhawk’s guitar sounded impressively full-bodied, and otherworldly. It had real engaging presence during some of the newer numbers, particularly a thrusting and engaging ‘Monkey’, the crisp and unusually infectious ‘California’ and it also added texture and poise to the more subtle, beautifully distant ‘Silver Rider’. Underpinning all was the rumbling, menacing presence of Zak Sally, whose bass playing was both more audible and more expressive than it is on record, and the skeletal, rudimentary beatings of Mimi Parker.

Like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are a husband and wife team who harmonise with unbelievable clarity and beauty. Minimal, delicate songs are rendered powerfully moving due to both the poetic intimacy of the lyrics and the smooth intertwining of the voices. The sound is something akin to a spider’s web, elegantly crafted, but with a brittle vulnerability that makes it even more enticing. It all comes together perfectly in the encore, where they play a brilliantly balanced combination of ‘Sunflower’ and the early song ‘Fear’ (on the request of their sound engineer).

There is also much warmth from the band during the obligatory banter – they thank us all for funding their families for so long. Whilst tuning his guitar, Sparhawk asks the audience if there is anything they want to get off their chests. When one shouts out ‘I don’t like Brussels Sprouts’, he replies with scorn: ‘Is that the best you can do – I was hoping for something more profound.’
My only gripe was the brevity of the set. With the two encores taken into account, they played up to the 11pm curfew, but it still felt there was a relative paucity of material. They got through the bulk of the new album, but didn’t manage all of it (I would have liked to hear the uncharacteristically breezy ‘Just Stand Back’ in live performance), and there were only a handful of old tracks. Still, when these include the masterful ‘Laser Beam’, in which Mimi Parker’s voice gets to work its magic free from Sparkawk’s earthier tones and the mysterious, elusive ‘(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace’, it’s probably churlish to complain. Still, why no ‘Dinosaur Act’?!?

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