Low Chills Walters Downtown to the Bone

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Walters Downtown
February 8, 2016

Low is a band that was built for winter. The Minnesota three-piece may have arrived during the white-hot, summery explosion of alternative rock in the early ’90s, but Low’s glacial tempos and chilling vocal harmonies always suggested gray skies and dirty, black snow rather than sweaty, shirtless crowds. The cold seems to have worked its way into Low’s bones somehow. Then again, maybe I’m just projecting. It was awfully chilly on the walk into Walters on Monday night.

Inside, though, the venue was toasty warm and filling rapidly at 7:30 p.m. There were no opening acts, nor did Low need any. The band doesn’t get down to Houston nearly as often as their dedicated local fans would like, and a rare appearance in an intimate little joint like Walters was enticing enough to bring out the entire cult — even on a Monday night. There were a lot of hushed and excited tones rippling through the swelling crowd, almost as if folks were settling in for a night at the theater rather than an alt-rock concert.

People love to complain about Houston music fans talking through shows, but you could have heard a pin drop from across the room during Low’s set. That was mostly out of necessity; Low plays very quietly, with guitarist Alan Sparhawk employing some of the smallest combo amps imaginable and drummer Mimi Parker thudding away with soft beaters. The low (heh) volume enforced a special kind of intimacy in the room, with polite enthusiasts clustering in close to the stage so as not to miss a note. At times, it felt like everyone in the place was holding his or her breath.

There was no professional photography allowed at the show, and I guess I can see why: The sound of shutters opening might have drowned out some of Sparhawk and Parker’s delicious vocal harmonies. Their partnership, both professional and domestic, dates back to their elementary school days, and it’s not hard to imagine where it began. The moment they realized that their voices could be entwined together so beautifully, they must have bonded for life. That harmony was at the core of everything the band did on Monday, much of which was drawn from last year’s Ones and Sixes album.

At first, the crowd seemed afraid to clap, as if it might spoil the atmosphere. But by the time Low drove through “Monkey” from 2005’s The Great Destroyer, fans couldn’t hold it in anymore. They hooted, clapped and whistled with gusto. Each song was performed and received with a quiet reverence. The band played their instruments gently but insistently, dropping in a potent blast of distortion now and again as on the slogging, psychedelic second half of “On My Own.”

The show itself was split into two halves, too — “Mostly for your sake,” Sparhawk explained with a smile. After their hourlong first set, Low allowed us 20 minutes to finally speak during an intermission. When the band returned, they treated us to one more blast of hard fuzz, with Sparhawk performing a wild sort of cunnilingus on his guitar strings during an affecting rendition of “Pissing.” The performance became more gentle from there, with the plaintive vocal harmonizing on “Lies” and “What Part of Me” drawing ecstatic applause. Parker took the spotlight for an old soul hit, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Well, a figurative spotlight, anyway — the band was lit only by the strange video projections emanating from the back of the room. But slowed down and stripped of its essential horniness by Parker, the song sounded like heartbroken desperation. It was a real highlight.

Low wrapped things up with the long, crescendoing lullaby of “Landslide.” As the fuzz crept back into Sparhawk’s guitar, the video screen became a rainbow test pattern. The night’s broadcast had concluded; good night. Plenty of fans hung around to meet the band and buy things from them. But plenty more rushed out into the cold air, inspired to fly home quickly and surrender themselves to bittersweet dreams.

Personal Bias: I <3 the ’90s.

The Crowd: Exceedingly polite and mature.

Overhead In the Crowd: Silence.

Random Notebook Dump: I guess I should mention the third member of Low while I still can. Steve Garrington did a great job splitting time between his bass and his Nord Electro 3 keyboard all night. 

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