Saturday, August 8, 2009

Show Review: 8/5 @ Grog Shop - The Low Anthem

I'm a few days behind on this review, mostly because I wanted to let the show sink in a little more before I put the post up. I went home from the Low Anthem performance at the Grog Shop last Wednesday so high on music and life that I wasn't sure if my high esteem for the show was a function of something external, or if it really was that good.

Here we are, at the point where Saturday night turns into Sunday morning, and I'm sure. The Low Anthem put on one of the very best shows I've seen in months. We're talking Phosphorescent at the Beachland earlier this year levels of awesomeness - and for those of you that were either at that show or have heard me go on and on and on about it, you know how high this praise is. Oh, and get ready for me to go on and on and on about this one, too.

I give The Low Anthem full credit for my concert experience. They went on third out of four bands, and neither of the opening acts really raised my eyebrows in any kind of a way that got the excitement grooving. Local opener's Oldboy were OK and I really dug their drummer's enthusiasm, but I couldn't quite get over the singer's wine-sipping pretension. Really, it was the stack of books he brought on stage, including Ayn Rand (gag), that lost me from the get-go.

Oldboy was followed by the latest Brooklyn country act, in this case April Smith. The band she's assembled have some chops, but other than her petticoat outfit, she struck me as a far less interesting version of Samantha Craig. Instead, it seemed like one of those Hollywood star vanity projects, where they've recruited solid session musicians to go out on the road for a few weeks, in this case sort of a Reese Witherspoon figure up front. Still, those musicians were really solid, and by the last song I was impressed. Their version of "Wow and Flutter" was really enjoyable and worth a listen.

At this point, I'll admit to a moment or two of nervous worry. Would The Low Anthem disappoint, even after I wrote such a glowing album review and plugged the show so energetically in a post over at Addicted to Vinyl?

I should've known better than to get so worked up, as the moment the Rhode Island trio walked on stage, their demeanor communicated a savage understanding that we were about to behold something wonderful. I immediately dug the band's happy seriousness, a combination of furrowed brows and shared quick smiles. As they set up and sound-checked, my mind kept flashing back to Hollywood (mostly because April Smith had planted the Reese Witherspoon notion in my brain) and I decided to figure out who would play this band if a movie was made about their lives. About the time they launched into their set-opener - "To The Ghosts Who Write History Books" - I'd figured it out. Jocie Adams would be played by Tina Majorino, Jeff Prystowsky would be played by a more serious and more fit King Khan, and Ben Knox Miller would be played by a CGI-enhanced merger of James Franco and a sober version Stephen Baldwin's character in Posse.

That would be the last moment of goofy reflection I had for more than an hour, though, as the band's dark folk sounds consumed me entirely. Following the set opener, the band quickly went into their most famous track, "Charlie Darwin." (Note: I learned later, when talking with the band, that they called out the key - B-flat) they would play it in about 5 seconds before the song started, and that the Miller, who sang lead on the song, decided to take the vocals down an octave for the first time ever, just to see how it went. It went well, Ben.)

The band brilliantly navigated their way through original songs like "This God Damn House," "Cage the Songbird," and "Blind Walk the Blind, along with splendid covers of seminal tunes like Blind Reverend Gary Davis's folk classic "Sally Where'd You Get Your Liquor From," Blind Willie McTell's "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" (played with an incredibly soulful, gritty groove), and "Cigarettes, Whiskey, and Wild Wild Women," originally made famous by Sons of the Pioneers, a band formed back in the 1930s. (Note: I think The Low Anthem sort of have a thing about blind people. That's cool. I'm just sayin'.)

Song after song, members of the band moved over, switching back and forth between instruments like an upright bass, a pump organ, clarinet, crotales, and an E-flat alto horn. The last two I'll admit to never seeing before, and the band shared funny stories on both instruments. Apparently hipsters of all stripes seem to ask the attractive Adams about the crotales as prelude to hitting on her and the E-flat alto horn (essentially a march-friendly French horn) was a gift from Prystowsky's uncle, who had previously played it in the 1970s in a Philippines-based marching band. In fact, his uncle's report card is still lodged in the instrument's case. From what I understand, he scored pretty well in band. Considering his nephew's chops, that's not surprising at all.

The whole set was tremendous, so much so that I find it difficult to pull out choice moments of greatness. I'll do my best, though, and any such list would have to have the band's performance of "To Ohio." The song is a beauty, a folk song one would think was a traditional standard if you didn't know Prystowsky wrote it. They introduced the song by telling us what a special moment it was for them, since it was about going to a place they'd never played live before, a place that to everyone else has an exotic appeal but to the audience, it was just home. Well, maybe Ohio isn't want anyone would call exotic, but the crowd warmed to the song immediately, singing along with prompting. The outburst of song seemed to startle and please the band onstage, as they smiled at one another throughout its performance with these surprised eyes. Later, they told me that had never happened before, that the only place they'd ever heard a crowd sing along had been in England, where the song had received some significant airplay, but never before had it gone that way in the states.

Other memorable moments included the band's rousing rendition of "Ticket Taker" (my favorite off their Oh My God, Charlie Darwin album), an introduction of a song by telling a tale about a couple who wanted to use it as their wedding dance but wanted to make sure it wasn't about suicide first (sadly, it was, but Miller congratulated them for being so perceptive), and, finally, a quick trip onstage with headliner Joe Pug to play Lucinda Williams's "Jackson" - an arrangement they'd put together on the fly in less than ten minutes. It played. It played quite well.

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