The primary challenge for any band that trafficks in slower and more delicate songs is how to engage and create depth instead of getting lost in their own limited-dimensional weavings. The veteran “slo-core”/minimalist (and whatever other inadequate descriptor) band Low has continually solved this dilemma by creating multi-textured songs, sometimes glacially building over repeated phrasings, sometimes with rough, distorted guitar countering ethereal, yet full vocals, and with usually some form of a steady bass and brushed percussion undercurrent that provides foundation on which the tonal layers can soar. Even at their quietest, slow-moving, they are masters of tension building.
But last night at the tiny by NYC standards, warm confines of the Concert Hall at the Society for Ethical Culture in the Upper West Side, much of the time Low fell into playing to the room in a delicate, tender, and almost precious manner, lacking the energy they need to transcend. Maybe this was a conscious attempt at restraint to utilize the space to further expose their already skeletal renderings and become more deeply vulnerable and intimate. At moments they succeeded. But it instead felt like self-imposed constraints that undercut what they might have been trying to achieve. Many songs were teased-out to their extreme, and some fell flat, such as where the group rejected grittiness for an almost whispered-through version of their second song, Witches. The dull sound quality of the hall itself further dampened the energetic resonance.
Fortunately, starting with a raw version of Monkey and followed up a few songs later with a glorious version of Words, Low elevated themselves, showing that they could be tense, loud, still sparse and use the small room to support their works rather than using their music to sustain the room. The guitarist Alan Sparhawk, having electronics and (pointing out self-mockingly) conversational issues all night long, further blew through his constraints with excellent and distortion-exposed versions of Pissing and On My Own. I was however, disappointed to not hear more of his tearing open the atmosphere, by playing something like Nothing But Heart, a frequent opener from their last tour, and one in which Sparhawk begins with raw verve before backing off, with the band then returning to slowly churn to a fury.
The night still had plenty of other highlights, including a lovely and infrequently played I Hear... Goodnight from their collaboration In The Fishtank album with the Dirty Three, and an in-depth rich and thundering Dinosaur Act - both played with competent accompaniment from the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) string quartet (who also provided an extraneous presence to a number of other songs (and put most people to sleep during their forty minute opening set of beautifully rendered but unevenly selected pieces)).
As always with Low, Mimi Parker’s vocals conveyed her sublimely unsettling and unsentimental tenderness and her harmonies with Sparhawk were keyed in - really the most effective aspect of the show and what conveyed some of the most present emotional effect.
Still, I couldn’t help be reminded of the last time I saw Low where they opened for Iron & Wine at the worst venue in town - Terminal 5 - a concrete, multi-side balconied cross between a dystopian, Mad Max fighting hall and an airplane hanger. To fill the hall, Low was forced to unleash. Sparhawk was vital, Mimi Parker pounded with determination and their vocals still rose above and flooded the cavernous hall. I couldn’t help wishing they brought some of that intensity back to the Concert Hall for more of last night’s show.