Slowcore legends Low bring their Christmas show to the Irish capital. Philip Morrissey is suitably impressed.
Hearing about the announcement of this show elicited a great deal of excitement with me. I have been a major fan of the band since being introduced to them via associates of mine. So to see them in Ireland for the first time in a while, was going to be a major event. And then I saw the night it was taking place. To make it, was going to be a tight call in an already busy period. A few last minute switches, meant a bus ride up to Dublin and to attend for the evening.
It was certainly destined to be a novel experience. Christchurch is an absolutely stunning piece of architecture and gorgeous inside. It contrasts drastically with seeing Grindcore bands in dive bars. Even before the doors had opened, crowds were milling around in excited anticipation of the night ahead. Unfortunately, being a mid-week show, anyone who I asked along were unable to make it. The absence of time and money being put forward. Typical for many during the Christmas period.
If one was to look for an example of the divide and strain within America at the moment, they should look towards tonight’s opener. Erik Kostinen embodies the fears and hopes of a country who’s government and business leaders have neglected and left behind. A glasses and hat combo may remind some of Billy Bob Thornton in Simple Plan but simplicity is the key here. He does not claim any right or wrong for either of the major parties. It is all about surviving on a daily basis in some of the worse economic climates in decades. The essential one man plus guitar. Perhaps in terms of showmanship it is not the highest, but the emotion of his playing and the rawness of his lyrics shine through.
The theatres of war, relationships and history are all put under the spotlight. ‘Devil’s Blues’ tells of a destructive relationship full of alcoholism, loss and death in his family’s past. ‘Nothing Without You’ is an upbeat catchy number of two individuals in a relationship who don’t perhaps bring out the best in one another but realise how much worse they would be alone. Closer ‘Boom Town’, meanwhile, is a sardonic attack on the recent developments at standing rock. Major businesses stripping natural elements in exchange for short term benefits. He was a relative unknown to me beforehand but will definitely be looking to check out more of.
Where the rest of the UK got Harkin, the Irish leg of the tour sees Gaelynn Lee take up the mantle. Not only is it her first time playing this country of ours, this show marks her debut show in Europe. Her sound is essentially the joy of playing music and about overcoming challenges. The classically trained violin player is well accustomed to this. Living with the congenital disability Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or Brittle Bones Disease. This has seen her confined to a wheelchair but determined to continue on. Her demeanor is warm, friendly and open. Her classical background has seen her delve back into the history of songs from the British Isles going back centuries. They are familiar to many in the audience but perhaps not in her home state of Minnesota.
As with Kostinen, she is performing alone. I was puzzled initially when lines were audible even whilst she had stopped playing. That was quickly cleared up when she revealed her use of a memory man looping pedal. Her delicate plucking and voice lit up ‘Let the World Unfold’. A kindly piece of advise to not get caught up in your own self importance and appreciate the beauty around us all. Appropriately a medley of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ with ‘I Saw Three Ships’ makes an appearance. Both songs have been around for years but still evoke a real festive sensation. The cold of the season combined with the warmth of the welcomings. Humour is sprinkled throughout the set. Among her many anecdotes, she admits her move into playing her instrument of choice was inspired by a boy at school. She comes back with her original of ‘Someday Will Linger in the Sun’. A stunningly beautiful piece that could break the stoniest of hearts. It tells of her fears and anxieties before critical surgery in which she preserved due to the love of her partner.
Yet another journey back to the past saw the rendition of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to continue on with the seasonal theme. Alan Sparhawk is then introduced to help with her performance of their Murder of Crows side-project of ‘Bird Song’. A number which she encourages the sold-out crowd to sing along with. ‘Why Do You Sing?/Fate Has Clipped Your Wings’. Whatever about pre-ordained fate, her faith and determination in music has seen her cast off the travails life has dealt her. She sings because she simply has to. A lesson to everyone to follow your dreams. A farewell is bade to us via ‘The Parting Glass’.
And then it comes around the main part of the show. The gathering darkness within the church is offset by candles placed around the stage area. The sense of wonder and awe which this season brings out in spite of darker times perhaps. Low arrive on to a rapturous applause. Tonight is being billed as ‘A Christmas Performance’. Most took this as being our time of year. Those in the know took as being a performance of 1999’s E.P of the same name. And the first section of the performance sees this being played in full. Sparhawk on vocals and lead, Mimi Walker on drums and Steve Garrington are joined by Kostinen on Slide. Perhaps it is their Mormon faith, or disillusionment with the commercialisation of the season, which sees the band take a solemn, bleaker look at the songs.
‘Long Way Around the Sea’ steps into the shoes of one of the magi. It’s slow and meditative recount takes in their journey upon hearing of this child’s birth and what it means to them. The title refers to advise given to avoid King Herod and his possible wrath. Walker adds in with her vocals during the choruses. It remains appropriate for Walker to sing and perform on ‘Little Drummer Boy’. Her unique and quiet approach on the skins set the band apart in the early days. She steadfastly maintains her beat with a brush in one hand and a floor tom in the other. ‘Blue Christmas’ is a number that has been covered by countless artists. Most taking on the standard Elvis version. Low take it down, slow it and make it darker. Reflecting that for many, Christmas Day is spent alone without loved ones. The tack is switched somewhat to incorporate ‘Last Snowstorm of the Year’ from the fantastic Trust album. Christmas is revisited to ‘Taking Down the Tree’ and Kostinen taking the lead with ‘On Christmas Day’.
This all sets up one of their first singles with Sub Pop ‘Santa’s Coming Over’. It is absolutely mesmeric. It starts off slow and mellow before powering into a chorus which would put many drone and doom metal bands to shame. The sense of fear, and paranoia in case jolly old St. Nick arrives and deems you not worthy enough for a present this year. This is heightened on ‘If You Were Born Today’. Would a migrant child in the middle east be allowed to reach adult age in order to fulfill his possible destiny? ‘One Special Gift’ is beautiful in it’s simplicity. Again, Walker’s vocals shine through. Love being the greatest gift you can give someone after all. ‘Silent Night’ brings about yet another sing along. They approach it with a delicacy and grace which puts a lump in many a throat. Finally, every indie kid’s favourite seasonal number ‘Just Like Christmas’ sees the end of this particular element of the show. A break is required for many, the band included, to stretch their legs and get some fresh air.
Once everyone is back on stage, they launch into a duo of songs from most recent studio album, ‘Ones and Sixes’. ‘No Comprende’ sees Garrington combine his deft bass lines with tense and probing sections on the keys. Slight issues regarding the volume sees a pause for adjustment going into ‘Congregation’. This is carried forward when Sparhawk miscues his beginning into ‘Murderer’. To give him credit, this is easily brushed aside and the response the intense number brings whoops from the crowd. ‘Oh you like that do you?! Well I have a load more of that!’. There is an ease and comfort from their display which demonstrates their experience together. The grasp of dynamics and control, is shown with newer songs ‘Spanish Translation’ and ‘Lies’. Some bands are too quick and clumsy about hitting the sweet spot. Low are happy to let it build naturally. The encore leads to a drawn out ‘Landslide’. Sparhawk is able to unleash his full guitar hero, complete with bodily twitches and gains a roar of appreciation. He conveys his appreciation, along with his eternal love for Walker. She is wears the humoured expression of someone well used to public embarrassment. They finish up with new single ‘Some Hearts (At Christmas Time) released in line with this tour. It combines buzzed keys, a beautiful vocal performance and the unshakeable faith that our hearts are made to hope.
It sends everyone out into the cold Dublin night feeling more uplifted, more joyous and more aware of those less fortunate than us. It may have been later home than I expected, and a lot of travelling, but definitely worth it.
The gig of the year? Perhaps so.
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