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Concert Review: Low & Haley Bonar (February 27, 2003, Omaha, NE)

This was a rare performance, one that completely exceeded my expectations in nearly every possible way.
Low (2/27/2003, Sokol Underground)
Low’s Alan Sparhawk

I have to admit that I was worried Low might never return to Nebraska. They seemed rather irritated with the loud and obnoxious crowd at their last Nebraska performance, and I can’t blame them. While everyone knows that yelling “Free Bird” during a concert lost all ironic charm about 10 years ago, and nowadays garners more winces than laughs, yelling it at a Low concert borders on sacrilege. But once again, a few concertgoers came through and spoiled what could’ve been an otherwise amazing performance.

Thankfully, none of those jackasses were present at this show, or if they were, Low’s performance had them as speechless as the rest of us who filed into Sokol Underground late Thursday night. This was a rare performance, one that completely exceeded my expectations in nearly every possible way.

But as an added bonus, I saw Low as I’d never seen them before — relaxed, smiling, and joking around. Compared with the chilly solemnity of their music, this upbeat interaction was somewhat startling but also provided a welcome balance. When I’ve seen Low before, they’ve always remained aloof, their music slowing the venue’s collective heartbeat down to a snail’s pace while they remained distant and motionless. Last night, however, showed me a different side of Low, and in some ways, made their music resonate all that more strongly.

Of course, the show didn’t quite start out like that. The lights went out, and the thundering rhythms of “Candy Girl” soon took over the venue, slowing down all activity within to match its glacial pace. It was more stripped down than the version on Trust, without some of the album’s atmospherics, but the song still had plenty to spare thanks to Alan Sparhawk’s versatile guitar. Mimi Parker’s thundering drum and Zak Sally’s ominous bassline provided a solid base for the haunted vocal harmonies of Parker and Sparhawk… haunted and very capable of holding the crowd transfixed.

There’s always been a tension in Low’s music, as if the silence that makes up so much of their music might overwhelm it at any time. Nowhere is that better seen than in “John Prine,” Trust’s most harrowing and haunting track. I have to admit to a bit of morbid fascination while watching the band play this song. The song itself is so sparse that it feels like it could collapse at any moment; each time the band hits a new note, it sounds like a last gasp for air. Adding to that foreboding sense was Alan’s behavior as the band set the song’s pace; his twitching and shifting around made it seem like the song’s pace was affecting even him.

I’d seen “John Prine” performed several times, and I must confess that the song hadn’t really done much for me. Tonight, however, was a totally different story. When Zak’s distorted bass thundered in, it felt for all the world like a bomb had just gone off. The song ended in a round of “Sha la la la” punctuated by Alan’s straining falsetto, and I still get chills thinking about it.

As the band eased into “Little Argument With Myself,” all of that tension finally seemed to have an outlet. Although the song starts off rather mildly, it soon arrives at a deafening climax that finds Alan and Mimi pulling out all the stops vocally. When they sing “ Cuz there’s nothing as sad as a man on his back counting stars” from the bottom of their hearts… well, it’s one of those “close your eyes and soak it in” moments. The noise subsides, and all that’s left is the duo plaintively singing/whispering “But I want to believe,” the frailty of those words in direct contrast to the clamor that had just taken place.

As the show progressed, the band began to open up and relax more. Thankfully, that didn’t diminish the focus of their performance one bit. “Lordy” was performed with all of the fervor of an old-timey revival meeting, giving vent to the spirituality that often lurks just below the surface of Low’s music. The band also ripped through “Canada.” While Low is best known for their slower material, “Canada” proves they’re just as good at kicking out the jams.

Low even took some time to pay tribute to Fred Rogers (of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”), who died earlier that same day. I had the feeling that Low would mention his passing, and their tributes — yes, there were several — were quite touching and heartfelt. The band even engaged in some lighthearted banter with the crowd, withstanding a few loud requests while dryly threatening anyone that didn’t pay their proper respects to Mr. Rogers. The band finished out their set with “Starfire,” one of the stronger tracks from Secret Name, and a truly lovely rendition of “Over The Ocean,” one of their finest songs ever.

If you want a good gauge of how this show compared to the one a few years back, the trio joked when they goofed (they fumbled the opening of “Starfire”) and nailed it on the second try. Last time, when they messed up on “Lust,” Alan threw his guitar down in disgust. It was a rather jarring action, and one that perfectly exemplified how frustrating that show seemed for everyone there (well, everyone there to see Low, that is). However, no simple mistake could undermine a performance as graceful and riveting as this one. I’ve loved Low’s music for many years, and it has rarely felt as potent and personal as it did on February 27.

Opening for Low was Haley Bonar, who recently released her album on Low’s label. I’d heard some MP3s off her website, so I sort of knew what to expect, but I was still very surprised and pleased by her performance. Bonar’s heartfelt, folky songs recalled those of Rosie Thomas and Rebecca Pearcy, while her low, breathy vocals were reminiscent of Amy Annelle and possibly even Over The Rhine’s Karin Bergquist. She has one of those “phonebook” voices, meaning she could record an album of her just singing from the yellow pages and it’d still be worth hearing.

Towards the end of her set, Bonar settled down behind a Rhodes piano, and a different element crept into her music. Joined by a drummer, her songs took on a darker, almost carnival-esque feel, at times exhibiting the same off-kilter vibe that permeates The Denver Gentlemen’s music.

Unlike Low, Bonar rarely interacted with the crowd. She mostly hid behind her songs, mumbling titles while tuning her guitar and quietly thanking everyone for coming out. I imagine that was due more to nerves than anything else, and that in a more intimate setting she might be a bit more open and engaging. At least I hope so, because I for one would love to hear her tell the stories and inspirations behind those heartbreaking ballads of hers.

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