Music review: Low, Barbican, London

4.00

 

Acts that project digital countdowns on-screen before showtime usually signpost an explosive opening. For Duluth, Minnesota’s arch-minimalists, however, these huge, blinking numbers facing the seats serve a different function. The display pinpoints when this unassuming, black-garbed trio are ready to start – and even then, with a minute to go, much of the audience is slow to recognise the band take the stage.

It is a naturally low-key arrival for a group celebrating 20 determined years of slow tempos and library-level quietude, a thoughtful riposte to grunge’s over-emoting.

Having said that, over time the band have gradually evolved into a more expressive proposition, winning fans from Robert Plant, who cunningly recognised their soulfulness in versions of their songs, to the makers of teen drama Skins. Now Low can arguably be seen as precursors to the whispered strength of Fleet Foxes or even The xx.

Barely acknowledging a rapt crowd, Alan Sparhawk gently caresses his guitar, while Mimi Parker pads her drums, often with brushes, and Steve Garrington adds dolorous piano chords or bass guitar, often at a pace little more than glacial. Such levels of delicacy and studious exactitude repay close attention, a situation tailor-made for a seated venue like the Barbican’s main hall. This taciturn bunch also benefit from two huge screens showing archive footage of American vistas, including an intriguing sign pointing to “trees that defy belief”.

While Sparhawk sings with bruised anguish, Low are at their most compelling when the husband and wife team come together, his voice entwining around Parker’s softer tones. Indeed, much of the group’s growing accessibility is channelled through the drummer and it is pleasing to hear her feathery vocal take more responsibility on graceful current album The Invisible Way, which the band play almost in its entirety. With its crisp rhythm and delightful harmonies, ‘Just Make It Stop’ is dangerously close to catchy and there is a fervid cheer from the otherwise deferential crowd for Parker’s aching delivery on ‘So Blue’.

Such a meditative atmosphere adds extra punch to Low’s more dramatic moments, as when Sparhawk suddenly wrenches cracked wails from his instrument over Garrington’s buzzing low notes on ‘On My Own’. A generous set still provides room for fan favourites, among them the sinister, Plant-approved ‘Monkey’. Low close with a dark valediction wherein Sparhawk claims he can “hear the moon turn to blood”; as did many others tonight.

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