Refined. Talented. Elegant. All words that should be used to describe the sound of The Low Anthem, who performed this past Friday at the 9:30 Club. In the opening slot for Iron and Wine, the group’s set was cut far too short. But making the best of the time that they did have, the band managed to work a quiet magic on the crowd with their unique brand of ethereal Americana.
Over the course of about 40 minutes, Ben Knox Miller, the band's chief vocalist, led the group through a set that leaned heavily on their latest album, Smart Flesh (read our review here) while still finding time to dig back deeper into songs from their earlier releases. Miller’s voice, which comes across as uniquely off on the band’s recordings, was surprisingly strong on hushed tracks like Matter of Time and To the Ghosts Who Write History Books. In fact, all the voices in the band are strong. These guys can really sing, and when they came together in the middle of the stage for the songs Ghost Woman Blues and Love and Altar, the band proved that those gorgeous harmonies that you hear on record have nothing to do with studio magic.
If there was one missed opportunity in the entire night it would be in the band’s slowed down performance of Boeing 737 off of Smart Flesh. On record, the song is a raucous exploration of fear and uncertainty in a post-911 world. By having its tempo dropped to an almost dirge, the song loses none of its power or meaning but it does lose its urgency. A small misstep to be sure, but one that was easily forgivable as the band followed it up with the most surreal moment of the night.
At the start of This God Damned House from their 2007 release What The Crow Brings, Miller explained that they were going to try something different. What happened at the end of that song was one of the more unique things I’ve experienced at a show. As the words of the song faded away, Miller created a sort of feedback loop by holding two cell phones up to the microphone and then whistling into them. The effect is fairly indescribable and was only amplified by him having the audience members do the exact same thing. For about 2 minutes the whole venue was bathed in a bluish flip-screen glow as this otherworldly sound bled from everywhere and everyone in the venue.
It was weird to be sure, but it was also innovative and strangely beautiful, which is ultimately what The Low Anthem is all about. You can't pin a single member to an instrument because they play them all...even a saw. Along with Knox, band members Jeff Prystowsky, Jocie Adams and Mat Davidson create an sound that owes as much to the past (they closed their set with a cover of Leonard Cohen's Bird On The Wire) as it does to the future of what this type of music can be. By upping the ante on the instrumentation to include clarinets, French horns and apparently whatever else they could get their hands on, The Low Anthem are constantly flirting with a more symphonic, forward thinking style of rock, yet manage to remain firmly rooted in the dusty songs of old that an initial listen to anything in their catalog would suggest.
Check out the full set list below, as well as a performance of This God Damn House from the NPR Tiny Desk Concert series to see what the whole cell phone jam thing is all about. And don't forget to check out more photos from the show right here or by simply clicking on any of the images you see in this piece.
The Low Anthem - 4.22.11 - 9:30 Club
The Low Anthem - This God Damn House