Live at Leeds Parish Church on Saturday, 8th February 2003
Leeds Parish Church is such a perfect venue for a band like Low. As soon as the bright eyed crowd had filled up the carved choir stalls, the boxed pews, the balconies and the nave seating it was obviously going to be something special. The stained glass was all lit up and rigs had been adapted to spread the PA speakers through the impossibly echoey spaces of this late-Victorian barn-like church. Cans of beer were on sale too. A hushed and expectant party was gently and considerately getting underway. Alongside the main Low tour, Melting Vinyl (mostly Brighton's Anna Moulson, a West Yorkshire native deep down) have set up this particular gig in the same inspired creative spirit that brought God Speed! You Black Emperor to St Georges Hall in Bradford last year.
GEOFF SMITH hammered off on the dulcimer for the first turn. Just believe me. It was amazing. The big East European dulcimers he plays are like disembowelled pianos, laid out on a table and tortured with mallets and beaters of all kinds. The sounds go from thunderous bass notes that resonate all the way through following passages and up to impossibly fast shimmering forays across the tiniest wires at the top end. Add some finger nail attack, some scraping and damping, a helping of digital delay and some great booming floor percussion and you have a real musical adventure in your ears. There were two pieces in his half hour set, and the church has probably never sounded so good. If you were half awake on entry, you were wide awake at the end of this.
Like Geoff Smith, Fortdax has a CD on Tugboat records. Fortdax is just one quiet and purposeful shaven-head guy from Keighley. He works from a modest row of boxes and switches laid out on a big table looking very like an altar. He doesn't move much, but his sounds spin through an ocean of washes and vox humana choruses. Leonard Cohen's Chelsea Hotel, Japanese folk song, Ratchety switch noises and body pressing bass notes are dipped in and held up for examinations against the ethereal sonic light. It's a very engaging, agreeable and sparkling set of noises. The inventiveness doesn't sustain for the whole set, but there's something genuinely pioneering about this unprepossessing guy and his creations.
But the faithful have really come to see and hear Low. However good your stereo, the glorious voices of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker need to be heard in a big echoing space with the spirits of the dead in close attendance. And when Mimi stands at the minimal drum kit (always standing) she beats the huge resounding floor tom like it was a holy ritual, bowing in the final song (the lamb) in repeated synchrony with Zak Sally's mighty and harmonious bass notes.
Low write and perform lyrically intense songs about the moments when the earth and the stars combine with the flesh and the spirit. They do it in voices you could lie down and die with, accompanied by sparsely delicate instrumentation that fills the musical spaces just enough to hint at the infinite universes beyond. They pay attention to each decay of each note: they never play six notes when one will do more.
And when they get loud the volume is truly shocking. Paradoxically louder and more intense than Mogwai or Biffy Clyro, they achieve the crescendo, and come back out of it again by exercising a masterfully easy control. They're proper musicians, I guess.
Their opener tonight (every show uses a different set list) is the magisterial "(This is how you sing) Amazing Grace". Alan Sparhawk sings "it sounds like razors in your ears" with the sublime rage of a tortured spirit. The fearsomely loud guitar sounds like a message from the dead, and the paired voices chime like angels.
Throughout the set Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (mum and dad to Hollis) do whispering and husky indie voices when it suits, and full-on rich and golden choir singing whenever they chose. "Lordy", which they recorded with the Dirty Three in a Fish Tank session, shows the quality off most wonderfully. The delightful "La La La Song" from the new album has a Doris Day resonance (an echo of "Secret Love" from Calamity Jane) and a terrific chorus. But every song tonight is a gem.
Songs like "In the Drugs" and "Canada" from the new album (Trust - buy it) are mixed in with older songs that I don't know. The attention to detail and the sheer musical beauty rings through everything they do, whether it's Zak's community handclapping routine, Mimi's two tambourine touch, or Sparhawk's off-mic humming in the lead out from a song, nothing is too small or inconsequential that it isn't done with love and care. Six notes are not played when one can do more. But they're not dead to the need for variation, texture and drama too. The church itself becomes an important part of the performance. Sparhawk uses its complex natural acoustic several times during the set, singing away from the mic but still sending his voice off on journeys into the last rows and the balconies.
Two encores excite the crowd to shout for virtually every song in the Low canon. With one more to go, Sparhawk says "We're not a political band. This is close as we get" And they do "violence". It's very fit. So good luck and joy to the world, whatever the liars and maniacs do. Whoever they are.