Low @ the Paramount Center, Boston, MA 4/29/11

Low at the Paramount Center, Boston, MA 4/29/11

Those who obsessively use their disposable income to purchase records and attend shows know full well that some artists soar highest when onstage while others are better suited to the environs of a recording studio.  Many of us have been to performances expecting the same sonic expansiveness exhibited by groups on their albums, only to discover that what was once bristling with texture and nuance on headphones now sounds vapid and uninspired in a concert hall.  It’s a deflating situation to experience, something so alive and staggering now rendered perfunctory and flat; it feels like you’ve been duped by your own ears.

You’ll understand then the trepidation I felt prior to attending my first concert by Low – the Duluth, Minnesota band that for nearly 20 years now, has been stunning fans and critics alike with its uncanny ability to extract prodigious levels of intensity from slow tempos and soft volumes.  The group’s music is the stuff of subtlety and restraint, and I was frankly more than a little nervous that the crystalline harmonies of founding members Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker would be among the elemental forces lost in the cavernous atmosphere of an auditorium.  As it happened, Low’s trademarks – extraordinary dynamic contrast, mesmerizing ambience, and those singular vocal duets – came through in a way not fully realized on record.

Certain music just shines more naturally when it’s performed in a particular milieu, so though it seemed fortuitous, I’m sure it was an entirely calculated move to have Low’s first performance in Boston since 2008 at the Paramount Center in the city’s Theatre District.  A defunct facility that was recently purchased and restored by nearby Emerson College, the Paramount is an ornate yet intimate 500-capacity performance hall – rich with charm and character but devoid of the sticky floors, bar clamor, obstructed views, and surly clientele that often result in complete frustration at larger venues.  And true to Low’s history and legend, the audience – an amalgamation of college students, twentysomethings, and aging indie rockers – was unfailingly polite throughout the evening, allowing for even whispers between band members and the tap of bass player Steve Garrington’s shoe to be detected in the mix.

The stage, like Low’s music, was minimally adorned; aside from a towering blank screen and filtered lights that ran the length of the back wall, the only other objects occupying any space were three microphones and amplifiers, a keyboard, and Mimi Parker’s makeshift drum set.  The core trio, augmented by an unacknowledged guest on keys, took to the stage at 9:00pm dressed entirely in black.  In front of a completely captivated (and patient) crowd, Low laid down close to a dozen songs before frontman Sparhawk took pause to greet the audience and then, while gesturing to the Paramount’s elaborate decor, proffered “please enjoy these walls……and this ceiling.”

Low's Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker

Touring in support of their most recent album, Low’s first set was heavy on newer material, particularly this year’s critically acclaimed C’mon as well as their other Sub Pop output of the past 7 years, Drums and Guns and The Great DestroyerC’mon selections like “You See Everything” and “$20” highlighted the husband/wife team’s seamless vocal harmonizations as well as Parker’s surprisingly muscular performance on percussion – a setup which amounted to nothing more than a floor tom, snare drum, and two cymbals.  Tunes that already had breathtaking capacities on record, such as “Majesty/Magic” and “Nothing But Heart,” were positively transcendent in a live setting, with Sparhawk’s fractured guitar work threatening to bury the carefully cultivated textures and fragile atmospheres coaxed by the rest of the band members.  While the group’s sullen and brooding public demeanor was every bit in line with the tone of their music, it was Sparhawk whose onstage mannerisms continually broke the pervading sense of austerity, his convulsive neck twitches and unhinged guitar attack a notable juxtaposition to the detached cool exhibited by his bandmates.

Despite the generally flat affect of the group, less subdued cuts like “Monkey” and “Breaker” were well-received, with the former’s fuzzy keyboard squalls and macabre vocals achieving a new level of poignancy while the latter’s electronic drums and handclaps allowed for some rare audience participation.  Much like at a Sigur Rós concert, the audience displayed its approval throughout the night in the manner of a less prim symphonic audience, eschewing all talking and throat clearing during songs but wildly cheering and hollering after the last notes had decayed.  The elation was all the more pronounced after the group closed out their first set with “Murderer,” a reflective song about death on multiple levels that only a band like Low could deliver with such zest.

After a brief respite, the foursome returned for a 5-song encore which began with “Sunflower” from 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire and also featured a boisterous rendition of “Canada” from Trust, the band’s 2002 LP.  Segues between songs were just as quiet as some of the music, prompting the audience to shout requests at the group while Sparhawk took his time tuning his guitar – “Sandanista!”  “Broadway!”  “Whatever you want!”  “So, how’s school going?” Sparhawk inquired with a smirk.  “We’d love to play all of those,” he shrugged, before closing out the night with an arresting version of “Shame” from 1995’s Long Division and Destroyer favorite “When I Go Deaf.”  Low exited the stage almost as nonchalantly as they had arrived, tentatively gesturing to the crowd as they walked behind the curtain.  This sort of stoicism would’ve felt like a slight from most groups after such a deft display of musicianship, but with Low, it only reinforced the frill-free candor of their craft.