Coming back to Minneapolis on Friday night to play at First Avenue, it was almost like Low had never been gone. But in ways, it seemed like they might never really be back. Just like how the inevitable effect of time and travel sustains the phrase, “you can’t go home again,” so does a highly-anticipated album, murmurs of a “breakthrough” in the charts, the adoration and expectation of critics and the fans, surely change a band in ways that can ever be reversed.
The very entertaining Duluth bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles opened up, though only playing about six songs. The foursome’s ability to provide their expert musical roller-coaster of unbelievably fast tunes mixed with slower, thoughtful numbers in such a short set was as admirable as anything. They seemed to be having a lot of fun, which infected the entire club, doing exactly what any audience expects from an opening act. The only reason they left the stage seemed to be so that Low could punctually take the stage at 8:15.
The stage that Low stepped onto was ringed by five little Balsam Fir Christmas trees. But, because the trees were unlit and undecorated, it felt more like the band was playing in the middle of a forest or a tree farm than anything else. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a band like Low. It also hinted at just how packed that stage would get during the show. For a band that has shown up on even the largest stage with nothing but a drum and a high hat, a couple amps, and the players themselves, Friday night’s show was very different.
When they came on stage, Low was not alone. A choir of six or seven people squeezed in between two trees. Eric Pollard, who plays drums in Alan’s side project The Retribution Gospel Choir, joined them as well, a departure from the usual minimalist percussion provided by Mimi. Friend Marc Gartman (of No Wait Wait and several previous projects), sat in back with a lap guitar. And, as we knew would be the case, bassist Zak Sally wasn’t there. In his place stood Matt Livingston, who in no way brought to mind Sally. In a red cardigan, a black dress shirt buttoned up to the neck, and thick-rimmed glasses, Livingston looked like he would have been more at home on stage with Weezer than Low. But, nobody expected him to be a new Zak Sally, but just to play the bass, which he did admirably all night.
The concert was dominated by Christmas tunes, but they were all the sort of songs that remind us what Christmas is supposed to be about: a beautiful little baby, peace and joy, hope. There was no “Jingle Bells” or “Over the River and Through the Woods” here. In an interview with The Pulse of the Twin Cities last week, Alan said that the show would be about two-thirds Christmas music. He wasn’t joking about the proportions. The show was neatly split up into thirds. The first third was made up of several Christmas songs, including “Little Drummer Boy,” accompanied by the choir, Pollard, and even the Turtles, who came on stage to play along on one of my favorite Low songs, “Just Like Christmas.” After that song, the choir and everyone else left the stage, leaving the core members of Low alone — though appearing lost amidst all the equipment, instruments and trees still on stage — to play a set of non-Christmas tunes from their back catalog.
Where they had made the Christmas songs rich, layered compositions, as we would expect considering the band’s musical trajectory of the last couple years, in this middle portion they seemed to make a concerted effort to return to their “slowcore” roots. The set featured strong and steady work on the bass by Livingston and a really beautiful, sparse rendition of “Blue Christmas.” It was sung by Mimi, who has a tremendous voice which she has often seemed too shy to really set free. On this and a few other songs, she sang more confidently than I have ever heard, a treat made all the more special by its rarity.
For the last third of the show, the choir and other guests came back on stage. Here, the “wall of soundâ€ was heard in the greatest effect. Where before I had been a little perplexed by the quantity of musicians on stage and the relatively small amount of sound they were creating, the choir now made themselves known and everyone seemed to be interacting to make the songs big, soaring tunes. This was most heard in another of my favorite songs, “Last Snowstorm of the Year.â€
Over the course of the night, Alan’s banter seemed a little precarious. Not the least because at times his performance seemed a little precarious, missing a couple entries and seeming to forget a verse here and there. He seemed to lack his usual confidence and the audience seemed to listen closely whenever he spoke between songs, as if we were all playing the role of psychiatrist, trying to glean some understanding of his tormented mental state from his spoken words. But, we were not psychiatrists, Alan was not reclined on a couch, and he spoke so close the microphone and so deeply that it was actually difficult to understand a lot of what he said. If anything, his shaky presence seemed like it might be the result of feeling the crowd’s expectation of seeing a mentally-troubled musician. I got the sense that he would have liked it if no one was privy to his problems and he could just simply entertain and enlighten as he and Low have done for years.
One thing that Alan did say in the midst of thanking the choir and all his friends that had joined him on stage, and saying how they were all talented musicians in their own right, was his lament that there was one talented musician that was unfortunately not there, obliquely noting an absence that everyone couldn’t help feel.
But, it wasn’t just the audience that made the show seem a bit like a therapy session. With all the people on stage, and with Alan’s widely-discussed mental health issues, one really got the sense that getting back on stage was a challenge for Sparhawk, and that the other people weren’t there so much to provide the “wall of sound,” as had been promised, but to show their support for their gifted friend.
Photos of the concert by Chuck Olsen are available on his Flickr blog.