By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Last Modified: Apr 22, 2011 07:51PM
Not often does a packed audience standing shoulder-to-shoulder remain impeccably silent while a band takes a moment to tune up and prepare to play the next song.
But that may be an inevitability of listening to Low, a band from Duluth, Minn., that can easily cast a trance by playing slow to mid-tempo songs with little instrumentation other than echoing guitars and stomping drumbeats. Ever since the band started recording 17 years ago, they established a sound that fits well with long northern winters, generous space and flat, expansive horizons.
But as they confirmed Thursday night at Lincoln Hall, the band is not necessarily fixated on being a downer. Over the years, their songs have become more crafted, especially those on “C’mon” (Sub Pop), their newest, and the vocal harmonies between guitarist Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker rise above to give the music beguiling strength.
At Lincoln Hall, bassist Steve Garrington and keyboardist Eric Pollard both helped round out the sound with textures, and programmed effects, both of which prevented the music from sounding too old-fashioned or drifting away.
Rooting the music was Sparhawk’s reverb-soaked guitar, from which he coaxed jagged sounds and, on the new song “Witches,” a solo that had the same wrecked detours of Neil Young at his most impassioned. Parker frequently provided a counterbalance of simple beats, using only a mallet or brush and standing behind a bass and snare drums and two cymbals.
Despite releasing a healthy four albums over the past 11 years, Low’s profile has risen due to having their songs appear in television commercials, film and, most recently, recorded by Robert Plant, one of rock’s most boisterous singers who was forced to dial it down to Low levels.
Early in their 18-song set, Low performed “Monkey” and “Silver Rider,” the two songs that Plant picked and is playing on his own current tour. Both lacked the polish of those versions, but in that there was a benefit: The fragile pace of “Silver Rider” soaked the song in mystery until the big release – a blasting vocal chorus without words.
Low excels in those surprise peaks, especially on their songs that hinge on a single lyrical phrase that gets repeated until the music walls in on it and collapses. Several of the songs played Thursday fit that bill, even though there were some – like “Nothing But Heart” from the new album – that were less about the song and more about creating catharsis.
The less obvious songs were those that used lyrical snapshots and well-crafted choruses to color in private moods. “Nightingale,” was almost a chamber piece accented by bluesy guitar phrases while “When I Go Deaf” described every musician’s fear, but with hope. “I’ll stay out all night/Looking at the sky/I’ll still have my sight,” Sparhawk sang. As the quiet professions were interrupted by noise, what was first an elegy became a celebration of will.