Few are the bands I’ve seen on two continents. Neither can I think of any whose progression I’ve witnessed more directly than Low, from an in-store appearance at Amoeba in San Francisco in 1999, to Academy 3 in Manchester in 2001, to the grand Hall at the Barbican last night. During the Academy show people had to be shushed so that the band could be heard, which seems to have been quite a common problem for them. They have a much wider dynamic range than most.
It was odd being ushered into the auditorium by the insistent Barbican countdown announcements, with the stern reproof that latecomers would suffer for their dilatoriness. The support act was Hebronix, a solo project by the ex-lead singer of Yuck (so I discover after the event). He seemed both difficult and diffident, hardly able to interact with the audience. There was a lot of delay-looped guitar, with the lead on top, in front of rather pedestrian drum tracks. He did bring out some quite good drones, during a very short set – only half an hour.
Naturally lots of people didn’t appear until Hebronix had finished, an attitude for which I have little respect. It was remarkable though to see the Barbican almost completely full for Low, a band I always associate with smaller gigs, and interrupted Peel sessions. I can never resist commenting upon the audience. Near me a man rather too old for the dark glasses he was wearing had trouble finding his seat:
I can’t see the seat numbers
An obvious remedy for this difficulty came to mind. His friend arrived later, commenting that:
This is much nicer than the Royal Festival Hall
while someone walking past to buy a drink said, with some sagacity –
It takes all sorts, dunnit
There were two screens behind the instruments, and three hoops of bulbs hanging down. A fluttering “hello” flag appeared on the two screens, followed by a ten minute countdown, the right-hand one being a mirror image of the left. This stopped for quite a while at five minutes, before resuming. A backstage incident? Waiting for people to satisfy the unthinking drink imperative? When they did start, the screens showed mostly what looked like American home movies of the 1940s and 1950s.
Their three dominant characteristics are the very distinctive harmonies of the singers and Sparhawk’s unheralded guitar virtuosity, which now ranges to strident and loud distortion, matching in quality his gentle strumming and picking, added to Parker’s spartan drumming style, with the very restricted kit. The best way I can think of summing them up is that they specialise in fragile doom. Even from my seat at the back of the circle, I didn’t feel isolated from them, and the more upbeat songs filled the space that a while before had accommodated an opera. I hope they don’t play somewhere even bigger next time, though. They deserve to fill the wonderful acoustics of the Barbican hall. As with Pere Ubu the previous week (which I will describe soon), I hardly knew any of the songs (I discovered at the merch stall later that they were mostly playing new material). This didn’t matter at all. In fact, there was a strange pleasure in the claps of recognition from other people for songs I didn’t recognise. Several glitter balls started shining towards the end and they didn’t feel cheesy. The encore ritual can be tired. Sparhawk said
We’d really like to play some more songs for you
which (perhaps with the pleasure of the moment) felt genuine.
Afterwards I bought a couple of CDs (yes, that’s CDs, granddad), with which I was given an envelope containing a proposal from Peter Liversidge, to create the video backdrop for the show.