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The Low Christmas gig has become a hallowed institution over the past few years. In fact, sending Low’s ‘Christmas’ EP has become a personal tradition (because some cards shouldn’t just be for Christmas, right?). It’s a special time of year when Alan Sparhawk doesn’t tell the people to Shut Up who are yelling four-letter words (okay, so those are the titles of songs they want), and instead invites requests. At the Union Chapel, a friend asked for the first song Sparhawk ever learned, which happened to be ‘Should I Stay, or Should I Go’ by The Clash, because “You don’t actually have to sing and play at the same time” (Cue: demonstration; much laughter).
So anyhow, the Low Christmas gig - a time to remember friends. Hey, Low brought their friends Ida over, who claim never to have played the UK, which is a bigger deal than it sounds since they’ve been around almost as long as Low, and are friends enough to have recorded songs for their wedding (check out ‘I Love...’ on the indispensable Low boxset). Problem is, gigging a week before Thanksgiving would be a little bit early for most Americans (who are used to having a rehearsal Christmas-dinner), and there’s a shocking amount of non-festive spirit tonight, e.g. Sparhawk: “This show is dedicated to John Peel, who championed us... and the most powerful person in the world” (the Little Baby Jesus?); Heckler: “Play the music!” Sparhawk: “...that guy’s mom.” Much laughter, of course, but then comes a Greek curse I’ve never seen written down, which steps over the line. Hmm...
First up is a new song that silences everyone; the chorus: “my love is for free”. It’s powerful, but subtle (close to ‘Pissing’ maybe, but no Great Destroyer pummelling, or stripped-down pop; closer to Things We Lost or Trust). It’s one to look forward to, for sure. Next, a technical hitch delays ‘Murderer’ (from Drums and Guns) but that means the high opening drone gets played twice as long, and the anticipation is, well... Tantric; this is one of their greatest songs, after all, a psychopath’s inner dialogue that relishes the prospect of being God’s right hand, and tries to imply We’re Alike, You & Me: “I’ve seen you pound your fist / into the Earth”. It’s scarier than Radiohead’s ‘Climbing up the Walls’ because it’s functional, logical; it could hold down a job on Wall Street, or (until recently) the White House...
Mimi takes a turn, quietening the gig another notch, so that ‘On the Edge of’ can sound even more devastating; previously, a cryptic narrative, in which the ocean is less an image of ecstatic dissolution in the everything than it’s the supreme pain of living (all that saltwater endlessly pouring into open cuts) before the singer learns to float on waves of wordless murmuring. Radiohead-like on record, live it’s played huge, swelling, distorted, metallic; you’re on the edge of a precipice, yelling defiantly into it. Next, ‘Sandinista’ puts us on a war-footing, with the rattled snare, but ends in massive guitars. Still building up, Low are joined onstage by Ida for a hypnotic version of (Trust-closer) ‘Shots and Ladders’, the second guitar, harmonium, and violin making this an epic climax to the first half.
Now with their friends gathered round, this is the Christmas portion of the show, and with the exception of ‘Silent Night’ Low & Ida play the whole of the EP. ‘One Special Gift’, sung by Mimi, is haunting as ever, and Alan has another stab at his dedication – the most powerful person in the world is... “Michelle Obama”. Good call: America does indeed have something to be proud about, like she said, and it’s been a while. Next, ‘Just like Christmas’ gets people dancing, and ‘Long Way Round the Sea’ is up there with the best of Low’s songs (must be the long shadow of mass infanticide in the lyrics). I’m not going to lie to you, though: Low gigs work best by contrast, and ‘Taking down the Tree’ and ‘Blue Christmas’ followed by both halves of the new Christmas 7” makes for polite enjoyment rather than infectious fun. One side of the 7”, as it were, is a cover of The Congos’ jubilant reggae-gospel (“every knee shall bow / when the coming of Jah is near”), and the other is introduced Vincent Price-like (“Beware flying children…”) before depicting childish anticipation of “Santa coming over” that lurches into comedy-metal vocals: “SAAATAAAN’S COMING OVER!!!” Actually, the enjoyment isn’t so polite, because some prize prick right behind me heckles “Play ‘Condescend’!” [elegant but forlorn track from the purists’ favourite, the ‘Songs for a Dead Pilot’ EP] He continues: “I’ve been coming to Low gigs for 11 years, and this isn’t the Low I know!” Okay – whoah?! Alan Sparhawk may have a sense of humour about his recent drug-fuelled crack-up, with its vision of the late John Peel – saying on the Low-documentary he hasn’t seen any evidence since then that he’s not the Anti-Christ, as he came to think – but you’d expect the obsessive-types to be protective rather than combative, No? This sounds calculated to offend, but there’s something a little Mark David Chapman about the heckler, which stops me chipping in with “Play anything but ‘Condescend’!” Fortunately, the putative Harbinger of the End of the World, up onstage, knows how to deal with this: “Well, I’ve been coming to Low shows for 15, 16 years...” Point: Sparhawk.
The second-half of the set closes with a cover of ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ that gets everyone swaying again, then an encore of ‘If You Were Born Today’. Introducing the members of Ida, and Low’s new recruit (“on bass and… your mom”), Alan winds up Mimi by praising the beauty of everyone else, and omitting her. Hasty applause drowns out her complaints, like we’re all trying to keep them from a pre-Christmas divorce. Still, Alan did take 10 years to write his first love-song for Mimi (‘Will the Night’), which makes the set-closer (‘When I Go Deaf’) especially poignant: “I’ll stop writing songs / stop crossing out lines / and we will make love...”
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