There’s an austerity to Low’s music, a feeling that its two main players share a secret between only themselves. Part of that is because Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are married, and Low is how they parse their marriage. Many of the words they sing could be etched across tombstones; many ring like private prayer to a silent god.
The band’s performance at Thalia Hall in Pilsen amplified the Christian overtones of the music. Foldable chairs were lined up like pews in the cavernous space, and Sparhawk, Parker, and additional bassist Steve Garrington stood on a high stage as if at an altar. Sparhawk was the only musician of the three to address the crowd, and did so sparingly, mostly toward the end. He closed the band’s last encore with the words “peace be with you.”
Low drew heavily from its last two records for the Chicago date supporting Ones and Sixes, the band’s 11th album. Songs like “What Part of Me” fell gently compared to cuts from the trio’s back catalog; even the fakeout strummer “On My Own” from 2013’s The Invisible Way crashed massively through the concert hall once the band arrived at its distorted, stretched-out coda.
The set’s clear core was “Pissing”, a heavy track from the now 10-year-old album The Great Destroyer, which has only grown more poignant with age. I’ve long thought of Low’s louder music as apocalyptic, and I noticed a lyric in the song I’d never heard before: “Michael, blow your horn.” It’s a reference to the archangel Michael and the resurrection as recounted in the Book of Mormon, and beneath the red stage lights at Thalia over Garrington’s throbbing bass line, it rang out like a warning cry for the end of days. “Lovers sleep alone,” Parker and Sparhawk harmonized, calm and mournful at the same time, before Sparhawk turned from the audience and strangled a web of feedback from the only guitar he’d play all night.
Sparhawk played “Death of a Salesman” as the second song of the encore, singing by himself with the occasional wisp of harmony from Parker, who sat otherwise motionless behind her drum kit. The song is one of many Low songs where the pair seem to assume characters, to tread through alternate lives over the course of a few minutes. In this song, one of The Great Destroyer’s quiet gems, Sparhawk plays a man who gives up his gift for music and works a job he doesn’t like to support his family. There was a strange humor and tension in hearing him sing the words “I burned my guitar in a rage” over the strums of the guitar in his arms. The irony seemed to fold into gratitude; he didn’t have to burn his guitar, and more than 20 years after its debut album, Low still plays songs for people who watch in reverence.
The band ended with “Laser Beam”, an electric hymnal from 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire that soared with Parker on lead vocals. Like most of Low’s music, the song privileges depth over complexity; this is a band who would rather stretch two or three chords to tonal perfection than engineer a progression too fast to absorb. Sparhawk’s creased tenor glanced beautifully off of Parker’s rich vibrato for most of the night, but here, she sang to God alone: “I need your grace.”
Contemporary music, especially when seen live, is often described in terms of religious experience; someone I know described a past Low concert as “church” before we sat down to see this one. The band’s audience is not specific to their faith, but as we gathered in a room together under the music’s power, the details of who believed in what faded away. The humanity of Low’s music encompasses a yearning for that which is bigger than humanity, and last night, it was something we all shared.
Kid in the Corner
On My Own
What Part of Me
Will the Night
Death of a Salesman