Having first seen ‘The Low Anthem’
live in February 2010, when they played a sublime and acclaimed show
the ‘02 Academy’, Shepherd’s Bush, this was one of my most eagerly
awaited gigs in some time. This time the venue was ‘The Roundhouse’
a gloriously renovated old rail depot in Chalk Farm. Given the sense
of loss, timelessness and nostalgia contained in many of their own songs,
this seemed an apt choice of location. Indeed at times ‘The Low Anthem'
can evoke a deep yearning inside me to scrap modern London life, buy
a ‘Pickup’ and head out West (and by that I mean Western America,
not towards Wales. I’ve done that and it was a bleak experience)
The band’s most recent album ‘Smart
Flesh’ was recorded in a typically unconventional manner, their choice
of location being a vacant pasta sauce factory in Central Falls, Rhode Island.
The set list on the night drew heavily from their most recent release,
with almost every track being played. Indeed, the opening song was the
title track ‘Smart Flesh’ itself, followed by the quaint, sparse
and dare I say haunting ‘Ghost Woman Blues’.
After lead singer Ben Knox Miller admitted
that for some time they had been embarrassed about their lesser known
debut record ‘What the Crow Brings’ the band proceeded to perform
some beautiful numbers from it. This was a rare treat. The sparseness
of “Yellowed by the Sun” and ‘diary like’ “God Damn House”
surely put to bed any of the band’s lingering doubts. During "Sally
Where’d You Get Your Liquor From", another tune from their first
record, we were encouraged to call our friend next to us and hold our
phones in the air, resulting in an overwhelming mix of static and feedback
as the song slowly drifted into the night. The constant changing of
instruments was a feature throughout – there were (amongst others)
guitars, drums, clarinet, pump organ, double bass, glockenspiel, bowed
saw, trumpets, and a few of which I’m ashamed to say I had no recognition.
Unfortunately some of the louder electric
songs were slightly muddled in the mix. The vocals in the brilliant
‘Boeing 737’ and Jack Kerouac’s ‘Home I’ll Never Be’ were
drowned out in the midst of heavy distortion and drum bashing. Admittedly
it must be difficult for any sound engineer to find the perfect mix
for a band like The Low Anthem. While you can often picture them huddled
around a camp fire wistfully singing of old American folklore, you still
get the sense at times they long to crank up the volume and blast out
some stomping Blues in their garage!
One of the genuine highlights of the
night was ‘Charlie Darwin’, a lonesome, cinematic tune, laden in
melancholy and self reflection. As Knox began singing almost falsetto,
the band gathered around a solitary microphone, allowing their contrasting
but thoughtfully crafted harmonies add another dimension to the sound.
For us in the crowd, this was our moment of true devotion, honestly,
we barely blinked and “Oh my God, it was all around!”
Though it wasn't quite a sell-out, probably
about two thirds filled, the dedication and respect shown by the crowd
was something to admire in itself. Never before have I witnessed such
serene silence throughout a concert. At times the atmosphere inside
The Roundhouse was bordering on the reverential. The only disturbance
came from a die-hard cockney fan who bellowed “What a band, what a
F**KING band” midway through the set. This was greeted to rapturous
applause, with the band humbly questioning “the modest nature of the
The first set lasted just over an hour
and half. The band signed off with “Love and Alter”, when yet again
Knox’s startlingly pure falsetto sounded as if it was suspended in
thin air, accompanied only by the barest strum. The encore started with
a bluesy number “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around’ a number originally
written by ‘Blind Willie McTell’. ‘The Low Anthem’ have been
covering this tune since they first began touring, which was remarkably a mere 4 years
ago. “To Ohio”, their penultimate offering was long overdue. Written
by bass and cello player Jeffrey Prystowsky it encapsulated everything
that makes The Low Anthem special – a refreshingly honest story of
love, loss and redemption, sang and performed with grace and imagination.
But that was not all. Back onto the
stage came both (very impressive) support acts, William Elliot Whitmore
and Simone Felice to accompany The Low Anthem in their finale, a cover
of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire”. It ended with Knox holding
the microphone out to the crowd and after some encouragement, (unsurprisingly
since no one dared let out a whisper in the two hours prior) we joined
together in unison “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight
choir, I have tried in my way to be free”.
And that was all. We were left to reflect on Ghost Women, Apothecaries, Boeings, Charles Darwin, Sally’s Liquor, Ashes and Urns, Bibles and Boats and a whole lot more. As for me I was wondering where I could get that elusive Pickup truck so I could live out the folklore myself and marvel at the splendour of it all....O well.. maybe next time..