- by Steve Rhodes Release Date: Label:
Having seen Low perform in cathedrals, churches, opera houses and the usual mid-sized gig venues, where the band are never dwarfed by their surroundings, the choice of a tiny, unglamorous venue buried in deepest, darkest Salford for tonight's performance is another unexpected step in Low's live resume, but then this is no ordinary gig.
Taking a day off from their Christmas UK tour, the announcement of this gig, the last ever night hosted by promoters Dots and Loops after a ten year career, was hushed with an almost feverish anticipation from die-hard fans with the knowledge the band were going to première new, barely-finished material, never played live before, leading to all eighty tickets selling out within a minute of them being on sale.
Arriving too late to see Elle Mary, who by all accounts, produced a beautiful performance, Loop frontman Robert Hampson is my opener of the night. Simply sat down with a guitar, e-bow and a 'stomp-box' full of pedals for company, Robert delivers an effects-drenched and improvised guitar-led set, with long notes, ambient atmospherics and elements of drone, hankering back to his 90s days in Main, rather than the psych-gaze meanderings of Loop. An interesting if not exactly invigorating support, but with intimacy the watchword of the evening it is perhaps the perfect accompaniment to the main act.
Now Low's performances are always hushed and intimate, with the audience hooked upon every guitar chord, bass and keyboard note, drum patter and Alan and Mimi's exquisite vocals, with talking in the audience only tolerated between songs or the full wrath of the audience towards the perpetrators would be incurred. Tonight the attentiveness is no different, but the sheer closeness of the band to the audience (you could almost reach and touch them) adds to the already fervent and excited atmosphere. With a stage so small, there's no room for Mimi's drums or Steve's bass, thereby a drum machine and keyboard bass notes are their substitutes, which does nothing to detract from a spellbinding performance from start to end.
'The Tempest' leads the way with a throbbingly heavy programmed drum at the pace of a normal heartbeat constant throughout the song. Though Low have dabbled with electronics in the past this is grabbing it firmly and shoving it down your throat. With light piano keys and Alan's polite guitar and infrequent bass notes building the track up, the vocals take you to the next level, with Mimi's standing out, a higher range than the norm and just gorgeous, especially when it soars over Alan's crunching guitar, with very few dry eyes in the audience after this intense opener. The throbbing bass drum remains with 'Quorum', but what stands out is Alan's use of a distortion mic (a la Fever Ray). Along with circling bass keys it is a pretty experimental break from the norm and a welcome new dimension to Low's live sound.
Thankfully 'Hell's Angel's' has gentler percussion programming, giving us some respite in a very crowded room, with fuzzed guitar and a hymn-like dual vocal, this is more traditional Low. The track title couldn't be more succinct as Mimi's gorgeous vocal fights for supremacy with Alan's caustic guitars, which become almost atonal as the track closes. It's amazing how they get such a great sound from such a small space.
The highlight of the set though is 'Total Disarray', with a sped-up drum machine, increased use of echo on guitars and perhaps the most beautiful vocal performance from Mimi I've ever heard, almost operatic and choral, not too far off the range of Lisa Gerrard and a neat contrast to Alan's use of the distorted mic, grabbing the audience's full attention. With Alan's guitar freakouts raising their head at the end of the song, Sonic Youth-ing the hell out of the room, it is anything but disarray, just wall-to-wall magnificence.
Despite the change of tone and texture and the embrace of new ideas with this performance, there's still room for some more 'traditional' Low numbers. 'Don't Walk Away' with just vocals and guitar and no electronic trickery in sight, is spacious, filling the room as the audience is hypnotised by every note. Even as a 'bum one' appears Alan takes it firmly in his stride laughing stating “we'll edit that part out”.
Low in December wouldn't be the same without at least a Christmas number and their new track 'Some Hearts At Christmas Time' makes its debut live appearance, a serene, minor-key number that continues to stand Low out from the usual Xmas crowd. Their only track previously played live and their regular set closer 'Will The Night' closes proceedings, just vocals, light guitar and piano and is two minutes of pure relaxation.
Just a short 45 minute set, but in such an intimate setting we all felt like competition winners rewarded with our own private performance. Low continue to surprise every time I see them live, here's to a rendition of Napalm Death covers the next time we meet?