by Stefania Ianne
A 110 miles round trip, one hour and a half to get there, exactly the time it takes sometimes to go to the centre of London and back in heavy, polluting traffic. This time we head in the opposite direction, to Ashford, Kent, on a grey Monday evening. An uneventful drive, our sat nav takes us to the wrong church. We are not the only ones: other people in another car seem to be manoeuvring too once they become aware of the fact that the small country church in the middle of nowhere cannot really be the place we are looking for. The timing is tight, there is no opening act, but we manage to get there on time to get some decent seats in the cross-shaped, heavily pillared church. A heavy curtain blocks the view to one half of the cross, the shorter side. In my head, I imagine a rotating elevated wireless stage that would have allowed a 360° vision and doubled numbers in the audience. I voice my vision and my companion immediately introduces the idea of a wireless fix to avoid musicians ending up wrapped in kilometres of colourful cables.
The evening with Low in Ashford is obviously sold out despite their presence at another festival in London over the following weekend. I had briefly considered attending the Caught by the River festival as Low were the headliners on Saturday, but, all things considered, I opted for the trip southwards and the intimacy of a performance in a holy space for a spiritual band. The audience is quite clearly not made up of locals, as the curator establishes pretty quickly when introducing the band and plugging future gigs. That’s the beauty of concerts away from the hugely demanding city: London, like an octopus, still manages to englobe suburbs but, on the plus side, the new space is airy and never overpopulated.
Low are on stage quickly, no fuss. Minimalist setup as usual, no fancy clothes, no rock’n’roll excesses; just seriously intense, seriously dramatic musical patterns facilitated by the smallest drum kit on earth, keyboard and an old, faithful electric guitar. The first half of the set is plagued by some issues with singer and guitarist Alan Sparhawk’s pedals screeching and cracking at every touch and a guitar that refuses to stay tuned. Drummer Mimi Parker and Steve Garrington (bass, keyboard) stay cool albeit slightly apprehensive, while Sparhawk hurriedly tries to get everything fixed. The issue unsettles the cohesion of the set, it is not working. At the beginning of the set, dominated by songs from their latest release Ones and Sixes (Subpop, 2015), Low are not impressing my companion and I find myself wondering if it was worth the trip. I am not getting the fully immersive, hypnotising Low experience, despite a great rendition of ‘Lazy’.
Performing ‘Plastic Cup’ is always a good move though, when in need. The harmonies of husband and wife Sparhawk and Parker are captivating, while the bass seems to become deeper and louder at every chord. The song is a continuous crescendo, and Sparhawk’s crazy guitar is spectacular and inventive in free flow. We relish the moment and wait for more. This is the thing with Low in general and Sparhawk in particular: their music is deceptively quiet, it feels safe and melodic, until they hit a very personal chord, both musically and emotionally, and all your certainties vanish in the blink of an eye. Sparhawk vocals feel personal and painful and uncomfortable. The band plays for over two hours with a break between the two sets. During the break, Sparhawk is approached by a teenager that looks so much like him that it is almost scary. Low disappear backstage after Sparhawk dismantles the offending pedals and takes them with him, hoping to fix them during the interval. In the second half of the gig, the singer confesses that they had to take the kids with them this time because of the school break. Of course the kids are totally embarrassed and pretend to be orphans and are faking posh British accents to blend in. They are at that stage when they do not realise yet that their parents are totally cool.
In the second part of the set, the volume is louder, Sparhawk’s gear is functioning without a hitch and we are all in a much happier place, although constrained to uncomfortable church seats and despite a small accident with the lights (somebody operating a switch that lights up the whole place to daylight in the middle of a dramatic pause), creating a lot of puzzlement and ironic smiles on and off stage. Did nobody notice that a performance was in progress? Mimi Parker’s vocals alternate between the safe, the eerie and the heavenly while never missing a beat, never missing a cue. Steve Garrington’s inspired and encompassing keyboard and obsessed bass offer a comfortable safety net for Sparhawk’s improvisation as well as technical support in the moments of need.
It is the second time I see Low during their Ones and Sixes tour and it is the second time I witness Alan Sparhawk’s mouth/teeth guitar playing inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s exploits. Although I was aware of the possibility, it still felt as intimate and intense as the first time, possibly too close and personal both on and off stage, a heart-stopping moment, I hold my breath in awe. It takes some time to recover, it is magical, it is intimate, it is indecent or maybe I am just reading too much into it, it just felt so powerful. They’ve done it again, they’ve floored me, they’ve rendered me speechless. I draw a blank when I try to describe the rest of the set. Still, I cannot fail to mention the sweet version of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’, with Parker taking the vocal lead, and the powerful, sobering ‘Landslide’. After a brief pause, we are bid goodnight with one tiny gem from the turn of the century, ‘Will the Night’, from the 1999 album Secret Name. There will be no return on stage. All that is left are the harmonies in my ears with the tempo kept by the falling rain during a long, uneventful drive back to London.
- No Comprende
- Plastic Cup
- The Innocents
- Little Argument with Myself
- On my Own
- Spanish Translation
- Dinosaur Act
- Nothing but Heart
- Into You
- What Part of Me
- Especially Me
- Let’s Stay Together (Al Green cover)
- Will the Night