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Low w/ Pedro the Lion (Saturday, February 12th, 2005, First Avenue, Minneapolis)
Low - Photo from Chairkickers.com website


By Cyn Collins

PEDRO THE LION:

The sold out First Avenue crowd listened attentively to Pedro The Lion. Their music hypnotized with honest lyrics and the art of storytelling, usually revealing, often painful. Pedro fans and newcomers alike seemed to soak in the moody atmosphere.

Pedro The Lion has a down-to-earth approach to rock and roll. Bearded and dressed in black, their warmth and rapport with the audience was obvious. A pleasant surprise to me, and something I was informed by David deYoung happens every Pedro show, was the Q & A session with front man David Bazan. Example questions included ones about why he wrote specific songs and whether or not they’d play their popular “Big Trucks.” (The answer to that second question was no.) During Q&A, Bazan also announced he’s now writing a novel. (Not Bazan’s first foray into the literary realm--the band name Pedro the Lion comes from a character in a children’s book Bazan wrote before starting down the musical path that lead to creation of this indie band.)

After conversing with the audience for a few minutes, Bazan said they needed to move back to the music, saying,”We’ve gotta blast through these songs so we can let Low up here.” He added, “It’s a sincere pleasure to play for you guys,” and you could tell he meant it, only to be cut off by a girl yelling, “Less talk, more rock!” (I think she was at the wrong show.) Bazan calmly responded in a roundabout conversational way that “We have a saying that’s even catchier than ‘Less Talk, More Rock.’ It’s ‘Fuck off.’”

In the second half of the set the band pulled out a phenomenal cover of Neil Young’s “Reservation Blues” with the help of Low’s Alan Sparhawk on guitar (in Black Eyed Snakes mode.) Passionately executed and powerful, mournful prairie winds seemed to blow through the song that climaxed with great sound effects: chirping, violins, rockets, and hums.

LOW:

Low’s show Saturday was an emotional roller-coaster ride.

Pre-show, we were treated to their “Monkey” video on the big screen. With a primal and medieval appearance to it, the video alternated between showing them playing in slow-mo on an azure blue snowy night in stark winter woods performing a ritual, and a scene of a breakneck drive down an empty night-time highway, an animated claymation monkey freaking out and covering its eyes as though they were about to hit a semi head-on. But as they flashed back to the road nothing was there.

Mark Wheat, evening DJ at 89.3 FM “The Current” introduced Low as a “local band,” seeing as they’re from Duluth, as well as an “international” band seeing as they’ve definitely garnered that level of success. Wheat spilled the beans that one of our local favorites, Kid Dakota would be touring with Low when they head to Europe. Earlier this week, Darren Jackson of Kid Dakota revealed his excitement about their first European tour in an interview I did with him. He’s particularly excited about the Friday, February 18th show at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

Saturday, we were treated to many songs from Low’s new CD, The Great Destroyer, which is harder rock than anything they’ve done in the past. Alan Sparhawk’s other project, The Black Eyed Snakes is loud and primal, and he now brings elements of his Hendrix and old southern rock guitar into the music of Low somehow without desecrating Low’s style, still allowing each project to stand alone with no overlap. Their second song, California, a personal favorite of mine off their new CD, is getting a great deal of radio airplay. It’s a poignant tale (the first of many on the disk) of an older couple having to sell the farm that they poured their hearts and lives into, to “move to California where it’s warm” (likely for economic and health reasons).

Then came a song that may have been titled “Amazing Grace”? with vocals by drummer Mimi Parker. This hypnotic, strange take on an old gospel song used imagery such as, “Sounds like razors in ears. That bell’s been ringing now for years,” lingered in my mind. Low evoked picturesque images throughout the show, one of the magical aspects of their music and likely part of their vast appeal.

Parker sings slow and hauntingly, reminding me at times of PJ Harvey and older Patti Smith. Her harmonies with husband Sparhawk barely conceal emotions: quiet rage, brooding, sorrow, passion. The harmonies and complex instrumentation always accompanied by her tribal drumming lingers and dissolves on the tongue like cotton candy.

Strange that I’d experience music on the tongue. Perhaps it was a bit of synaesthesia. This feeling was amplified by Low’s use of taste and tongue images in their songs.

Sparhawk went wild on “Everybody’s Song” playing the guitar with his teeth at one point.

They played “Death of a Salesman” a gentle musing by a middle-aged middle class average Joe who gave up playing music when he was young to live a “normal” and safe life. He sings of burning his guitar only to be covered up again by “the fire came to rest in your white velvet breast, so somehow I know it’s safe.” This has also gotten quite a bit of airplay and is a compelling reminder to aspiring artists to pursue their creativity in spite of fear, lack of security, and the forces that try to make them fit the status quo. [The song was perhaps made more touching to us literary types by the death this past week of playwright Arthur Miller, from whom the song’s name comes.]

Sparhawk announced that they were going to try to play The Great Destroyer live, and that it often doesn’t work. “So we’ll do it more Elvis, less Leonard Cohen,” he said. And it worked.

Bassist, Zak Sally, who also plays with Kid Dakota, gave congratulated First Avenue on reopening and encouraged people keep supporting the venue.

Mainly the music was dark, dramatic, and dusky sounding, against heartbeat rhythms providing an ominous tone. At times Pink Floyd, “Dark Side of the Moon” inspired sounding, or My Bloody Valentine, interspersed with wild irrepressible guitar spurts by Sparhawk, ala Black Eyed Snakes. At times I felt transported and buoyed by the East Asian mantra-like vocals. At others the pace was often so slow and lulling that it began to feel almost claustrophobic. I longed for any kind of shift to release me, feeling the similar challenges presented by meditation, to remain still and in the moment. I was struck by the idea that I was being sung a bedtime story, of a life-long journey spiritually and physically from beginning to end (beginning in California and ending in New York – intentional?), of spectrums of choices and their outcome. There was always the bittersweet mix of hope, and regret and resolve throughout. “When I Go Deaf”’ (I won’t even mind)’ lists the things they’ll enjoy with their eyes and each other, no longer needing to fight or speak or lie. (This is a beautiful twist for a musician, as most of us say we’d prefer to go blind than deaf.) Sparhawk then proceeded to blast our ears with loud heavy-metal solo.

Sally wished his wife “happy birthday” saying, “I love her very much and that’s what you do with your wife. Love her very much,” he reminded the audience. It was this and the songs that felt so heartfelt and true --- you could feel that they play with so much heart. The audience sensed this and honored it with attentive listening, even while there were expressions between songs of struggles with the slow pace of the live show – “I would love to listen to this as I’m going to sleep, but I don’t want to die here,” I overheard one concert-goer say. The pace was leavened by building feedback, early punk guitar riffs, Hendrix-style reverb and Southern rock moments. The more rocking, “Canada” (“You can’t take that stuff to ….”) was sung by Parker using lower, throatier, bewitching vocals.

Inspired by the Q and A session by Pedro the Lion, Sparhawk asked people in the audience to say something from the bottom of their soul. That didn’t go very well as people were either too reserved to say something or weren’t digging deeply enough, so he wrapped it up saying “we’ll try to wind this up with somewhat of an air of professionalism”. I regretted hearing that, as I liked both the proposal and how it was conducted, and feel it could work given time and a different audience.

They introduced the next song “Broadway (So Many People),” saying, that it’s “about New York City, but it’s for you, too.” It featured an oft-sung refrain, “where is the laughter” which seemed ironic as it was difficult to find laughter in the show, and I began to wonder if I hadn’t listened hard enough. I know that Sparhawk has a subtle sense of humor from The Black Eyed Snakes shows and some of the lyrics, but it’s hard to feel joy when immersed in the moody and somewhat depressing vibe of the show, in spite of redemption, thrill-seeking, joy and fire in many of the songs. The juxtaposition of the message and how it was conveyed made me think of Low as an opposite structure, similar phenomena of the Super Furry Animals who are deceptively happy and carefree sounding in tone, with heavy, ominous, cynical lyrics. Tricky stuff that gets under your skin insidiously and compels you to listen more deeply each time.

Cyn Collins is cyn.collins@howwastheshow.com


See also Emily Hanson's review of this show here.