Low - Halifax Minster, Halifax - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

Low - Halifax Minster, Halifax

by Andy Brown Rating: Release Date:

Since its release in 1999 listening to Low’s Christmas EP has become something of an annual tradition. Sure, we all enjoy a bit of Mariah Carey but it’s fair to say that after the 50th time you’ve heard it in a supermarket over the festive season you’re a little bit tired of hearing about who or what it is she wants for Christmas. Bah humbug and so on.

Low Christmas has thankfully retained its magic by the very fact that its low-key, often downbeat nature doesn’t exactly scream heavy-rotation in the shopping centre. Having said that I did hear ‘Just Like Christmas’ in ASDA the other day and judging by tonight’s sold-out gig it’s safe to say that the EP has its place, a particularly special place some would say, in the Christmas musical canon.

If seeing Low around Christmastime wasn’t special enough, tonight’s performance is in Halifax Minster. If any band can adequately fill the cavernous surroundings of a huge 12th century church then it’s Low. The slightly daunting task of supporting the band goes to Minnesota’s Erik Koskinen and West Yorkshire’s Katie Harkin.

The pews are full and there’s plenty of excited chatter in the air as Erik Koskinen takes to the stage accompanied by his acoustic guitar. Koskinen deals in rootsy Americana that channels a whole host of troubled troubadours from the likes of Townes Van Zandt to Ryan Adams (that’s Ryan not Bryan). The songs centre around tales of loneliness, whiskey and the devil while a tune about the perils of marrying your cousin reveals a charismatic and surprisingly witty songwriter at work.

Katie Harkin has been involved in numerous musical projects over the years, having started in Sky Larkin, played in Sleater-Kinney and only semi-recently formed the superb Living Body with Jeff T. Smith.  None of these other projects however allow us such an intimate glimpse into Harkin’s talent as a solo performance like this.

Harkin plays concise, lilting dream-pop that lifts right up into the rafters of the church. What becomes abundantly clear is just how fantastic Harkin’s vocals are as her voice soars effortlessly through the building. It’s unclear whether Harkin is planning a solo release any time soon but judging by the response that these rather beautiful songs receive it’s certainly something to consider.

The rest of the evening is split into two parts, the first half being Low’s chance to indulge us in their substantial array of Christmas themed material. You could hear a pin drop as the opening strains to the deeply atmospheric ‘Long Way Round the Sea’ pull us straight into the bands hypnotically beautiful world. This then blends seamlessly into their rendition of ‘Little Drummer Boy’, Steve Garrington’s bass throbbing through the pews as the music builds around the songs festive chant. There’s an intensity and sincerity to Low’s delivery that makes their readings much more than pleasant odes to the season.

The band's slow-core reimaging of ‘Blue Christmas’ is enough to make anyone well-up a little with drummer Mimi Parker providing  soothing yet powerful vocals. Both Parker and guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk possess the kind of voices that are capable of moving a fully grown adult to a quivering wreck. I manage to keep it together but it’s incredibly moving all the same.

These songs aren’t just pretty festive baubles; this is some of the most powerful music you could hope to hear by a band 23 years into their career.  We get the unexpected propulsive stride of ‘Last Snowstorm of the Year’, a superbly creepy ‘Santa’s Coming Over’ and the frankly crushing ‘If You Were Born Today’. Both Koskinen and Harkin join the band at various points with the former providing his own Christmas song to add to the festivities. The Christmassy set is rounded off with a joyful run through ‘Just like Christmas’. It still sounds like the greatest Christmas song ever written to these ears.

After a brief break the band return to treat us to a second set, this one primarily made up of songs from last year’s Ones and Sixes LP. ‘No Comprende’ is gloriously tense and lyrically mysterious while ‘Congregation’ feels particularly apt considering where we are. Long standing favourite ‘Little Argument with Myself’ still sounds utterly astounding while ‘Breaker’s assertion that “there’s got to be an end to that” sounds ever more relevant in these turbulent times.

The highlight of the second set undoubtedly comes with the crushing 10 minutes of noise and tension that make up ‘Landslide’. Sparhawk’s guitar is let loose as the songs dense, unrelenting riff builds around an almost unbearable sense of tension, bone-shaking catharsis and blissful passages of calm. For a band known for their quiet approach they really know how to turn things up.

The night ends with Low unveiling their latest Christmas song, the rather beautiful ‘Some Hearts (At Christmas Time)’ before wishing us all a merry Christmas. I’m not sure what I’ll get for Christmas but listening to Low play a 12th century church is a pretty unbeatable gift.

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