As gigs go, this one was pretty dark. Thats a comment on the venue, though, rather than the music. The setting was the 900-seat Queen Elizabeth Hall in Londons Southbank arts complex. With an exterior exhibiting brutalist architecture at its weather-stained worst, the auditorium itself provides some respite. A tall, open space with the seating raked sharply to afford unbridled views of the broad stage, its still an austere place of concrete and wood paneling, great for listening but a bit too clinical to offer much by way of atmosphere. Maybe thats why it was so dark in there. Dark enough for successive people to trip over fellow concertgoers as they took their seats, which themselves surprise you, as they dont tip up as you might expect. The plush leather, though, was a welcome touch.
Peering through twilight at the not exactly over-lit stage, it was a relief when the action started. First up was Seattle six-piece The Head and the Heart. The band dispensed an energetic set full of spirited singing and strident strumming, filled out by decorative keys, solid bass and drums, and the occasional violin break. The trio of frontline singers led in turn by Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell blend well together, while the admirably named Charity Rose Thielen has an oddly endearing habit of pulling away from the mic as she ups the decibels. While not every song hit the spot, there were a couple of genuine high points. Lost in My Mind stood out as an exceptionally strong song, packed with full-on harmonies and sheer rhythmic intensity, approaching the likes of Mumford & Sons or even Arcade Fire. The episodic Down in the Valley also hinted that this was a band that is going to stick around.
The stage lights dimmed to the eerie side of gloom as The Low Anthem followed. They mixed songs from their latest album, Smart Flesh, and its predecessor, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, with a smattering of classic covers. The George Carter-penned Ghost Woman Blues provided an intimate opener with the band in a close huddle around a vintage mic, all comradeship and sweet harmonies. From this sparse and heartfelt opening they went on to perform a compelling set, illuminated by a remarkable standard of musicianship that collectively saw them swapping instruments after virtually every song. These guys can blow as well as pluck, with the gifted Jocie Adams and Mat Davidson much to the fore. Along the way they laid down some weird and wonderful sounds with dulcimer, clarinet, trumpet, voilin, saw, and even a bowed banjo at one point. Much was underpinned by fluid bass and thoughtful percussion, while the harmonium was often to the fore.
Photo by Anika Mottershaw
Approaching the midpoint of the set, a strange thing happened. The gentle meander of To the Ghosts Who Write History Books was delivered with some loud, unscripted, electric noises. The band spontaneously decamped to the midst of the audience to deliver an impromptu, unplugged set of three songs while sound men tugged at wires and worked knobs. Drums and bass player Jeff Prystowsky only reached the other three halfway through the first song, a cover of Emmylou Harris Evangeline. Mind you he did have a double bass to haul from the stage, so kudos to the man.
Rounding off with a raucous Cigarettes, Whiskey & Wild, Wild Women, the band were received with rapture as they returned to the stage as people contemplated one of those I was there moments in live music. A cleaner sound resumed with a trio of pretty clarinetists led by Jocie Adams performing a version of Smart Flesh instrumental Wire, cutely renamed Hot Wire. Then followed the achingly beautiful Smart Flesh delivered by frontman Ben Knox Miller with tenderness and great power. Over the evening, the lead singer showed off a surprising vocal range – rich yet raw and stretching to a very able falsetto.
On a night of surprises, the band delivered a touch of audience-led magic at the end of This Goddamn House by getting people to call each other and set their mobiles to speaker mode, holding the sets close together to create differently pitched chimes that rang softly out across the hall. Chalk followed cheese as the upbeat cruiser Hey All You Hippies and a truly anthemic Boeing 737 showed the louder side of the band before they returned to the intimacy of the foursome huddle for the last two songs. The evening came full circle as The Low Anthem encored with the excellent Charlie Darwin and a country version of Leonard Cohens Bird on A Wire, with the four musicians grouped once more around the mic. Such purity of purpose is hard to find, and this band deals in it in spades.
Ghost Woman Blues
Sally Where D’You Get Your Liquor From?
Matter of Time
Home I’ll Never Be
To The Ghosts Who Write History Books
The Auld Triangle
Cigarettes, Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women
This Goddamn House
Hey All You Hippies
Love and Altar
Bird on the Wire