Low at the Paste Rock 'n Reel Festival

Given the cancellation of their fall tour this year, Low's appearance at the Paste Rock 'n Reel festival sounded like an unmissable event.  While perhaps not as rare or odd as catching the band performing as the Misfits, seeing Low after a cancelled tour when we weren't expecting to see them, performing songs that they weren't expected to record, was exceptional.

When a band tours as frequently as Low has in the last decade, it’s easy for long time fans to get complacent and take the annual visit from Duluth’s finest for granted. After seeing Low on tour after tour, I decided to take a break the last time that they came around because I felt like I had seen it all before. With the stylistic departure of The Great Destroyer it seemed like this might be a good year to catch back up with the band to see if they’d be trying out any new tricks live. More than anything, I was curious as to how well the new, louder sound would translate live, especially for a band that is known for quiet, powerfully delicate shows. Then came the announcement that this year’s tour was cancelled and it seemed unlikely that I’d get the chance to experience Low cranked up to 11 this year or any other.

What luck then that one of only two Low shows this season happened to be scheduled in Atlanta as a part of Paste Magazine's Rock ‘n Reel Festival. After all of the change and drama and waiting and then the unlikely event of a Low gig this year in my backyard, I’m happy to report that despite appearing terribly uncomfortable on stage throughout the first few songs, Low can most certainly rock. This point was driven home most clearly during “When I Go Deaf” when my girlfriend tugged on my sleeve to point out a man standing ten feet away from us who was plugging his ears… at a Low show!  It only took a few seconds for that to sink in and for the laughter to erupt.  Low has always been able to translate loud, heavy cover songs into their own distinct brand of slow burning tension, so I was sure that if they played songs from their latest record, that the live versions would be stripped back down to a quiet rumble. Not so. Tracks like “Monkey” and “California” had every bit of their recorded distortion and bombast and crashing rock energy, even if the band lacked the accompanying theatrics.

Of course the night would not have been complete without some quiet moments, and the most telling of those came when Alan Sparhawk could be seen mouthing the word “slower” to the bass player (who was not Zak Sally) during the intro to “Lazy.” The cover of Neil Young’s “Down by the River” opened with a squall of guitar feedback and then settled into a deceptively calm and beautiful arrangement; the kind that Low so often uses to lull audiences into blissfully grooving to dark and painful songs. “Two Step” was pristine and subtle as ever, while “Starfire” suffered a false start but eventually soared. Despite an admitted lack of practice, the band seemed to pass easily through the set, stomping on the fuzzbox when necessary, and peeling back to a cleaner sound when one was called for.

The story of the night though was that Low was back on a stage with the amps cranked up and a palpable sense of bitterness doing more than just lurking underneath the surface. This was Low as a darker, louder, and more painful band on stage, and the result was astounding. The show helped to remind me that there are certain bands that you should just never pass up the chance to see no matter how many times you think you’ve seen them.