The concert hall at the New York Society For Ethical Culture is a beautiful venue that’s both intimate and cavernous, but it can feel like you’re going to music mass: the creaking of the pews, the high ceilings, the hushed whispers, the aching stillness of the room. It’s not a rock club. But the Duluth, Minnesota, outfit Low has never been a typical rock band, long ago transcending the “slowcore” label but still remaining committed to crafting harsh, minimalist songs out of Alan Sparhawk’s bracing guitar tones and Mimi Parker’s flittering percussion. Perhaps no band has done so much with so litte, so it was with a little trepidation that I approached Wednesday night’s performance in which the group would be accompanied by the ACME String Quartet as part of the Wordless Music Series. It was easy to worry: Would the strings disrupt the band’s delicate alchemy?
Before we could find out how the band would fair with classical accompaniment, the string quartet played its own set to open the show, providing an appropriate introduction to Low’s cold, mournful world. The ensemble presented four separate pieces, the most striking of which was a rendition of Gavin Bryars’s minimalist classic “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” The arrangement, which has been covered by Tom Waits and the Music Tapes in the past, uses the loop of an unknown homeless man singing a forlorn stanza to build a haunting composition over an extended period of time. As the quartet grew louder, the lachrymose quality of the song was both deepened and complicated as the phrase repeated over and over, transforming from a simple tune into a hollowed mantra printed on a Möbius strip. Though it probably tested the patience of a few audience members, it was the most stirring moment of the quartet’s set.
Low took the stage without the ACME players and opened with “Waiting,” a track from the band’s new Jeff Tweedy-produced record, The Invisible Way, which made up a good portion of the setlist for the night. The album finds Tweedy applying the clarity and precision of late-period Wilco records to the band’s already pretty stripped-down sound, but in a live setting it was surprising how easily the new material fit right alongside older songs like “Words” off 1994′s debut I Could Live In Hope or “Dinosaur Act” off 2001′s Steve Albini-produced classic Things We Lost In The Fire. To hear all these songs from different eras bundled together was to realize just how subtle and glacial Low’s aesthetic shifts have been across the group’s 20-year career.
The band was joined by the string quartet after the first 10 songs, and as string players provided gentle accompaniment to Invisible Way opener “Plastic Cup,” I realized all my worrying was for naught. Low used the quartet in the same way the band uses everything: with restraint. The quartet did its best to be unobtrusive throughout the night; the most colorful moment came when the band played “I Hear… Goodnight,” a track from the In The Fishtank 7 EP recorded with the Dirty Three, and the bearded first violinist Ben Russell played a deeply melancholy but rousing solo. It complemented the song without ever overpowering it.
The band’s onstage mannerisms were equally restrained. At one point midway through the set, Sparhawk turned to the audience and said, “I promise one more and I’ll talk.” Later, when he did speak, he ended a brief aside by mumbling in his Midwestern drawl, “Maybe I’ll just stick with not talking too much.” I don’t think the audience minded too much. You don’t go to a Low concert expecting charming anecdotes and loquacious narratives; you go for the soft, pummeling power of the music and the fraught emotional intensity of Sparhawk and Parker’s voices working together.
And they sounded impressive all night. Amidst the often desolate and violent lyrical landscape of their songs—dead monkeys, suicide, murder and snowstorms were only a few of the topics covered—a certain poignancy emerged as the night wore on. When Low returned to play the anthemic “When I Go Deaf” off 2005′s The Great Destroyer for an encore, the room itself seemed to swell. Despite traveling from Minnesota to play, the band was right at home.
I Hear… Goodnight
On My Way
Last Snowstorm Of The Year
When I Go Deaf
To Our Knees
Just Make It Stop