What separates the Low Anthem from all of the other old-timey, Americana revivalist bands is its distinct understanding of atmosphere and the emotional kick it can bring to a simple folk song. Each of the group’s three albums was recorded in a different location ranging from a cabin on Block Island (Oh My God, Charlie Darwin) to an abandoned pasta sauce factory (Smart Flesh), and each album is imbued with a sound that is connected to that location. The cavernous echo of the abandoned factory heard on Smart Flesh is an emotive tool that basks the band’s unique minimalist arrangements of angelic clarinets, acoustic guitar strums and wheezing pump organs in an emotional density perfectly accompanying Ben Knox Miller’s downtrodden characters of the past.
Music Hall Of Williamsburg was neither an abandoned spaghetti factory nor a cabin in the woods. But the group’s show there last night was a dynamic, awe-inspiring rendition of its three albums that was leaps and bounds better than the recorded versions of the songs. The lavish yet minimal orchestrations hushed the audience and left everyone entranced in the ghostly beauty of songs like “Matter Of Time,” “Apothecary Love” and “Smart Flesh.” Between each song the members effortlessly swapped between a unique array of instruments that were plucked and sawed to create an intoxicating atmosphere. The most heart-wrenching performances of the night were of the banjo-led “Burn” and the Rev. Gary Davis cover “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?,” which featured a pulsating pump organ and full-band harmonies.
It was an amazing performance that was almost absolute perfection. Where the band faltered was in the reworking of some of its more rocking songs. The epic 9/11 song “Boeing 747” lacked the energetic punch of the studio version, and the usual barn-burner “Horizon Is A Beltway” was slowed to a medium pace and stripped of the raucous energy that made it a fan favorite. But those two missteps didn’t keep me from being blown away by the Low Anthem’s show. The band members are so insanely creative with their arrangements that I was left completely dumbstruck with how beautiful a trumpet, clarinet and a saw of all things could sound together.
To finish off, the band huddled around the mic and performed sparsely arranged versions of “In Ohio” and “Charlie Darwin” that were the perfect ending to one of the best shows I have seen this year. In the end what I realized was that the Low Anthem’s live performances are so heartfelt and masterfully done that its music will forever be better in concert than on album.