Low – Club Academy, Manchester – 18 November 2008

An early review for The Yorker.

 

Photo by Joe Cunningham

 

“We’re gonna do a couple more then it’s gonna get festive.” Alan Sparhawk, frontman of Low was a few songs into a stunning set when the bombshell was dropped. This, over five weeks before December 25, was about to become one of Low’s famous Christmas shows.

The band’s arrival on stage twenty minutes previously had been greeted with excitement, turning to silence as Sparhawk (one half of Low’s constant duo, with wife Mimi Parker) dedicated the set to John Peel, “the world’s most powerful person” Michelle Obama, and God.

The power of Low’s music lies in the simplicity of their often sparse arrangements; The trio (with current bassist Steve Garrington) stand in a row, and consistently conjure up a mellow combination of guitar, bass and percussion, lying beneath but perfectly united with their haunting two part vocal harmonies and thoughtful (often spiritual) lyrics.

The first seven songs were taken from their non-festive back catalogue, and throughout this opening portion of the set, the crowd was hypnotised into silent reverence. ‘On The Edge Of’ had perfect vocals against intense reverberating guitar stabs, and ‘Murderer’ opened with a seeming warmth which faded away as Sparhawk called out: “One more thing I’ll ask you, Lord / You might need a murderer, someone to do your dirty work”. You could have heard a pin drop as the understated beauty of ‘Tonight’, from 2002 album Trust, unfolded; Parker took the lead vocal, with pauses between lines allowing for dreamy guitar chords to drift around the room.

Until this point, the only signs that this was not a usual show were Alan Sparhawk’s bright red hat and request to be referred to as Santa. It wasn’t to stay that way though, as support band Ida (who also specialised in near-perfect vocal harmonies) joined them on stage, and the sleigh bells were cracked out for a mini Christmas set full to the brim with tracks from their Christmas EP of 1999 and their new festive 7”.

The mood was lightened but the crowd seemed restless, wishing for more of what came before. Only with older tracks ‘Long Way Around The Sea’ and their version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ did the previous atmosphere hint at returning. Away from those, new track ‘The Coming of Jah’ was a dodgy reggae number, and their cover of ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, the original of which surely isn’t even playing in the shops yet, was well executed but too joyous for this mid-November crowd.

Christmas grumbling aside, the audience couldn’t be dissatisfied with the perfect ambience Low produce when they’re playing in their usual form. By returning to the mood of the start of the set, the encore couldn’t have been better. Running right up to the curfew, the band returned as a three-piece to perform two relatively up-tempo tracks from Trust; firstly, ‘Last Snow Storm of the Year’, and then, following its pulsing intro, the glorious ‘Canada’ to finish.

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