Review: Low in Manchester

A typically eccentric live performance shows why Low are still cult favourites two decades on.
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A typically eccentric live performance shows why Low are still cult favourites two decades on.

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The urban legend (read: an unsourced paragraph on Wikipedia) about Low goes that when gigging in hardcore and grunge venues in the early 90s, guitarist Alan Sparhawk thought it'd be funny to go out and play slow, quiet songs with his wife Mimi doing harmonies behind a very basic drum kit.

Quickly the idea snowballed from a joke into a serious band and Low have been doing pretty much the same, brilliant, thing ever since. The kind of song-writing that attracts large numbers of bald men with beards to an alcohol free Methodist Hall in Manchester. As the crowd filtered into the main room, oddly enough there was a swing dance lesson going on next door. Presumably Low had to wait to until this session was finished before going on, as I'd imagine it's quite difficult to really get swingin' to tracks like 'To Our Knees' and 'Pissing'.

After fairly dull support act; who relied way too much on his guitars loop pedal, Low took to the stage after using a 10 minute countdown clock projected behind the stage, the likes of which I haven't seen used since I saw Justin Beiber (please don't judge me, it was a joke that went too far) at the MEN a few years ago. Needless to say Low's countdown was met with far less screaming adulation from teenage girls.

The set opened, like the brilliant new album The Invisible Way, with Plastic Cup, which lyrically transcends seamlessly from the exploits of a feckless young addict into a meditation on the notion of permanence, history and finally ends on the killer line, “maybe you should go out and write your own damn songs.” Deep stuff.

Next up is my favourite song from the new album, which is produced Wilco's frontman and all round genius Jeff Tweedy, On My Own, which starts innocuously enough, as more of the same acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies, but eventually kicks into a heavily distorted riff that wouldn't sound out of place on Neil Young's Rust. The sound that the three musicians create on stage with a minimum of instruments is simply incredible, a much larger band would struggle to have the same impact when they change tempo or go loud, but it's a trick that Low manage to pull off with aplomb every time.

While the band continue to rattle through songs from the new album, projected behind them is old black and white stock footage from circuses, showing daredevils escape from a straight jacket while being dangled out of a crashing biplane and various other acts of reckless human endangerment. Another of the more striking images was two men strapped to opposite ends of a windmill rotating at full pelt.

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The band really get kicking with 'Monkey', from 2005's The Great Destroyer which was also recently covered by Robert Plant's Band Of Joy. The bassline drives the song, while Mimi's backing vocals are hauntingly clear. The video playing behind the band also changes here, colour has taken over and we're treated green Mediterranean fields, and scary rocks that make you go “is there a face in that?” I'm not entirely sure what it means, but along with the line “tonight the monkey dies” it had an almost hypnotic effect. Chester Zoo are on alert.

Another from the new album, this time the Mimi lead 'So Blue' soars and crashes, and naturally the ocean is the focus of the video going on behind the band. Well they would be the focus, if Mimi's voice wasn't completely stealing the show, almost surfing on top of the waves, in a weird audio-visual metaphor. To balance out this femininity, the next is the fantastically phallic 'Witches' which is as dark and lustful as any of Nick Cave's best work.

Finally the band make an attempt to speak with the audience, wryly remarking that we must really want a drink, and that we'll probably start enjoying ourselves after the show. The next song is introduced with the words “The day we wrote this song, as usual, I was angry.” which was fitting for 'Words' but realistically could have described any song in the set.

The band left the stage triumphantly after On Our Knees, and having ignored a few shouts for Canada earlier in the set, chose to open with the encore with it. Another killer bassline, this was easily the best received song of the night, and even involved some clapping along from the audience.

Low then asked for some more requests, and promptly ignored them all, including mine for Pretty People and one brave soul’s shout for Just Like Christmas (it was April) and played us out with a song from their collaboration with the Dirty Three called I Hear... Goodnight. The last thing they asked of the audience, was for us to “remember,” with the odd venue, top quality song writing, beautiful voices and striking imagery, I suspect we'll do just that for some time.