all words: Colin Wilhelm
all photos: Emily Cohen
On Thursday The Low Anthem played a concert and a winding history of the band break out. “We’re going to play a long set but it will be entirely chronological”, singer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Knox Miller allowed in his prologue to the show. At times anthemic, but mostly just achingly beautiful, their set paralleled the line in their opening song “Yellowed by the Sun”, “the truth is like an onion, you can skin it layer by layer”.
Miller layered the literary lyrics that make up the thematic core of Low Anthem’s music in eclectic instrumentalization, mixing a cantorous clarinet, standup bass, organ, yangqin, and a toy-like assortment of chimes, an extremely light smattering of atmospheric effects, and vocal harmonies that illuminated the words that achieved an earned sentimentalism. Miller’s voice, even when he speaks, sounds etched in vinyl and carried through time by an old gramophone. In its nasally lower register and sliding style it’s not entirely dissimilar to a young Dylan.
Miller’s voice provided the one real constant, as members of the band played musical chairs with musical instruments between each song, adapting new tools for each intricate arrangement. The impressive menagerie of instruments came with a self-deprecating caveat: “In the middle of our third album we learned how to tune our instruments,” Miller said.
Other than the lead vocals the most frequently occurring variable had to be Jocie Adams’ backing (sometimes lead) vocals and often atmospheric, occasionally soloist clarinet: as uniteresting as anyone who had to sit through a middle school band playing “Major Twinkle Twinkle” might think the clarinet is as an instrument, Adams turned that notion on its head Thursday.
Adams also played the aforementioned yangqin, in perhaps one of the most effective uses of an Eastern instrument I’ve seen by a ‘rock’ band; each time she struck a note with her hammers it vibrated over the space like a an ethereal hummingbird.
The concert felt like a quiet show on a Sunday night, played for friends in someone’s living room: one part because of the band’s laidback attitude and sound (and stage pulled forward), one part because of the intimate crowd, and one part because of the 9:30 Club cupcakes they handed out to audience members midway through the show. In between songs Miller described their future plans, or when in their catalogical journey they had reached.
“This will be the last time we’ll come around in a while, we’re going to the studio to make two records” Miller said. Later on he introduced an as yet unrecorded song for the first half of their encore, mildly stating, “Ladies and gentleman, we are now entering the future.”
As for the (recent) past, opener William Elliott Whitmore provided a strong, sonically similar, opening set. Playing classical style guitar and singing with a smooth bass, Whitmore highlighted his set with a stripped down cover of Bad Religion’s “Don’t Prey On Me”, prefaced by an introduction where Whitmore espoused his admiration for D.C. punk. He followed that with a more typical (but still strong) Americana song of his own creation, “Johnny Law”. Whitmore’s adept lyrical acoustic guitar folk provided a satisfying appetizer to The Low Anthem’s full course meal.
At the close of the show, after they played their new song, The Low Anthem invited anyone who was a musician in the audience to come up and play an instrument, whether they were familiar with it or not, as all four members of the band harmonized on Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire”, capping off a night that featured a rising young band at the height of its power, in an atmosphere that felt like someone’s back porch on a cool Fall night, with a hundred or so friends.