With members of Trampled by Turtles
Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul
March 23, 2013
During the interview portion of Low's riveting show at the Fitzgerald Theater on Saturday night, Alan Sparhawk spoke candidly of the band's objective in approaching the evening. "We've played down here quite a few times, and the idea with this show was to do something unique." As if playing in support of one of the best albums of their career, The Invisible Way, during their 20th anniversary tour wasn't special enough, Low also brought along three members of fellow Duluth band Trampled by Turtles to augment their spare, singular sound.
The set also featured a massive backdrop of black and white, daredevil-filled film projections done by London artist Peter Liversidge, which added a stylish dramatic tension to songs that are already highly charged with raw sentiment. It all amounted to a stirring two-hour performance that once again asserted why Low is such a distinctive live band.
The Current's Mark Wheat was the evening's host, and explained during his introduction that Low's first set would focus entirely on songs from their new album, and indeed, the band tenderly worked their way through 10 of The Invisible Way's 11 songs during the opening segment. While Sparhawk and Mimi Parker both stuck to their conventional musical roles throughout the performance, bassist Steve Garrington instead spent the night behind a keyboard, letting Trampled By Turtles' Tim Saxhaug play bass while joined by his fellow TBT bandmates Ryan Young (fiddle) and Dave Carroll (banjo), who all added a classic, countrified touch to Low's sound.
It was a musical collaboration that got its origins at the Current's 7th birthday party at First Avenue in 2012, and while it took a few songs for everyone to fully come together, once they locked in creatively the songs took on an added depth and texture that added to their emotional impact.
Sparhawk took lead vocals on set openers "Plastic Cup"' and "Waiting," giving visible cues to the TBT guys to help show them the way forward as they struggled to forge a crisp musical connection at first. But with Parker leading the way through a despairingly gorgeous rendition of "Holy Ghost," the band settled in to both their expanded sound and their regal surroundings, and the show slowly became magical. Sparhawk again took the reigns on a potent version of "Clarence White," brazenly unleashing his discordant guitar riffs for the first time in the show. But throughout the first set, Sparhawk seemed content to drift on the fringes of the new songs, while Parker expressively carried the penetrating songs forward.
As stark, striking old-timey images of thrill-seekers doing aerial tricks on classic airplanes lit up the giant screen behind the band, Low eased their way through tender, touching versions of "So Blue" and "Four Score," as the indelible new songs turned transcendent in a live setting. Sparhawk stepped up from the shadows to share how thrilled his family was that he was playing the historic St. Paul venue. "My father called me about five minutes before we went on, to congratulate me for playing the Fitzgerald Theater. He saw a radio show here a couple of times, and he's pretty excited for me."
The Magnetic Fields-like swing of "Mother" then gave way to a slow-burning version of "On My Own," which swelled to a sprawling, expansive finish that featured Sparhawk's untamed guitar squall blending seamlessly with Young's deft fiddle work as the song emphatically rattled home with the group calling out its plaintive "Happy Birthday" coda. The end of the set then belonged to Parker, as her lovely take on "To Our Knees" blended smoothly into "Just Make It Stop," which eased the set to an elegant close as springlike images colored the screen behind the band, a subtle visual statement of how everyone is ready to see winter on its way out. "We'll see you shortly," said Sparhawk with a wave, as the band left the stage to the first standing ovation of the evening.
After a brief set break, the group returned along with Wheat for a short interview segment wherein Wheat reminisced about when he was working at Radio K and Low came in for a studio session on the day that Paul Wellstone died. Everyone was devastated and stunned by the news, and as a cathartic musical gesture, Low played a cover of Pink Floyd's "Fearless" during their session. Wheat asked Sparhawk about his memories of that day, and all Sparhawk could really do was mournfully shake his head and once again lead the band through an absolutely stunning version of "Fearless" that floored everyone in the stone-silent theater.
Sparhawk then apologized for not giving Wheat the answer he was looking for, "Sorry to leave you hanging, Mark, about Paul. But, you know..." Sparkhawk's voice trailed off as he was still visibly shaken by the painful memories of the loss of our beloved senator from Eveleth over 10 years ago. The second set then took on an additional sorrowful weight and anguished significance, with the airplane allusions within the verses of "Dinosaur Act" ringing true as the band continued to subtly honor Wellstone's memory. Even "Sunflower" seemed to be a way for the band to release some of those raw emotions conjured up the recollection of Wellstone's passing, and the cleansing, elegiac song was another way for the band to tastefully say goodbye.
"Pissing" continued the second set's doleful, deeply affecting start, with Sparhawk putting his arm around Young as he was overcome with emotion as the rest of the band brought the song gracefully to a close. Things got even heavier with a stirring rendition of "Words," as grainy, slow-motion images of the band's feet and drums were projected on the screen. "Last Snowstorm of the Year" clearly had a built-in local audience who have grown tired of winter's lingering icy grasp. There was no between-song banter to break up the heavy atmosphere settling over the theater, with the naked vulnerability of "In the Drugs" leading straight into a powerful take on "Especially Me," which featured Garrington playing bass for the only time during the set.
A heart-rending take on "Murderer" featured Sparhawk's desperate, unadorned voice gradually being joined by Parker's ghostly whispers before the rest of the band joined in as the song passionately took flight. "When I Go Deaf" brought the second set to a raucous close, as Sparhawk's fitful guitar work soared throughout the theater, bringing the song to a tempestuous, explosive end as the crowd rose to their feet for another well-earned ovation.
Wheat came back out to thanks us, and the band, for coming, and when the ovation didn't show any signs of dying down the group returned, and opened their encore with the Wheat-requested "Monkey." But Low had one more big surprise in store for us, as they closed out the show with "I Hear...Goodnight," a gorgeous track from their In the Fishtank collaborative EP with the Dirty Three. It was a tender, heartfelt way for Low to thank the audience for taking this journey along with them, and for consistently supporting them over their 20-year career. Tonight, (to paraphrase "Monkey") we were all yours, Low. Thank you for always shining some reassuring light into the dark corners for us.
Personal Bias: I have seen Low perform many times over the past 20 years, but this might have been the best show of the lot. They just keep getting better and better.
The Crowd: A sold-out house filled with respectful music fans, as well as the rowdy front few rows filled with dedicated fans who drove down from Duluth.
Overheard In The Crowd: Not much, other than a few shouted-out song requests.
Random Notebook Dump: The show will be broadcast on the Current on Wednesday, April 3, at 9 p.m. And a special word of thanks to Tom Herbers, who did the exquisite sound for the show, which was pristine and perfect.
On My Own
To Our Knees
Just Make It Stop
Fearless (Pink Floyd)
Last Snowstorm Of The Year
In The Drugs
When I Go Deaf
I Hear...Goodnight (Encore)
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