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Low / Kat Hawkins / Erik (live at St George’s Hall)

Bristol
7 December 2016

St George’s Hall in Bristol is one of the city’s finest venues, a church set in a lofty position halfway up Park Street, this evening looking splendid in backlit winter gloom. Inside, the stage was lit in red, mysterious yet comforting. I half expected to see Laura Palmer come out to meet us.

Instead, Erik, the first of two supports was there, dressed in festive black (as everyone on stage would be this evening), his warm, welcoming voice, sonorous of timbre lulling us as he wove literate cross-country tales over semi-acoustic backing, the chords as sharp as railroad spikes, coated with a fine spray of dust and desire. He eased us nicely into the evening’s proceedings, his engagement with the audience over cultural differences breaking down the barriers.

Kat Hawkins live December 2016

Next up was Kat Hawkins, a young lass from Leeds playing an electric guitar, whose warm reverb-strewn tones were a counterpoint to Erik’s grittier sound. At times the sustain and effects seemed to cause the guitar to fizz in her hands as she treated us to her songs both personal and political, a touch of Laura Veirs here, maybe a dash of Natasha Khan there, but her plaintive tones and staccato metronomic guitar style definitely cast its own spell. At times, the chords passed like fluorescent lights in a long dark tunnel, senses becoming tuned to the insistent sound. Her final track with the repeated refrain “Up to speed” was awkward yet cosy, the words not quite fitting in the expected way and sounding all the better for it.

I’ve seen Low a few times over the years and was always a little shocked at just how forceful a live proposition they can be when taking into account their measured and sedate delivery in the studio. However, I have never seen a Christmas show and was excited at the prospect. I remember some time ago buying the 7″ on Wurlitzer Jukebox that started their little festive journey off and I still can’t think of another band who could pull off a Christmas album without it being a little mawkish or contrived.

Low live December 2016

Anyway, tonight the band were five, augmented by their two supports, Erik on lap slide and Katie on atmospherics and sleigh bells, all in black against the red backdrop with very limited lighting. Opener “Long Way Around The Sea” was plucked from the Christmas album as were most of the songs to follow, its desiccated vibe helped along by Erik’s slide guitar, Alan Sparhawk‘s voice seeming lower, more hesitant; but as Mimi Sparhawk‘s harmonies came in we were swept away. Low are a fabulous band, but their secret weapon is Mimi’s voice, deeper than might be expected yet pure and gentle, and her natural ear for harmony seems to pitch them in some magical realm that nobody else would consider approaching.

Low live December 2016“Little Drummer Boy” followed, ugly and brooding, Al’s guitar seething as he wrung foulness from its neck, a world away from “Blue Christmas”, Mimi’s time to shine, her voice quivering, the lap slide backing her gently, buoying her as she told the tale of the loneliest time of the year. Delight after delight passed a rapt audience; they dust off “Last Snowstorm Of The Year” from 2002’s Trust, brief but glorious; Erik’s freshly written Christmas song was pelted with guitar snowballs filled with grit, Al’s guitar venomous and growling; “Santa’s Coming Over” stomped and swayed, angry and thirsty; “If You Were Born Today” was simply beautiful, the silence of the audience telling everything; “Silent Night” turned into a heartfelt, delicate lament. Al informed us that the peak was reached with “Just Like Christmas” the band went off for a break to a rapturous applause.

After ten minutes, they returned, just the three of them and we were treated to a half hour of songs from the last few albums. Steve Garrington‘s gentile electric piano added warm textures to “Spanish Translation”, “Holy Ghost” popped up from The Invisible Way, but everything was building towards an extraordinary “Landslide”. It started off with so much space, inexorably building tension and sound as waves of static enfolded Mimi’s sublime vocal, all winter hues and clear crisp mornings, like torchlight shining through mist, a suitable analogy to the weather outside and a perfect denouement. One final broken-hearted Christmas song, freshly written, saw us off the premises but by then the damage was done. Christmas had officially started and we had only Low to thank.

-Words: Mr Olivetti-
-Pictures: Michael Rodham-Heaps-

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