Words by DJ Hostettler
The Saturday of the Forward Music Fest was all about one band for me—Low. I hadn’t seen Duluth’s Mormon balladeers in well over ten years, and it had gotten so bad that I couldn’t tell you the name of one of their songs if you threatened me with a forced preview of the new Vampire Weekend album. But I remembered them as the band that could teach every sad bastard playing sad bastard music on the planet how the hell it’s done, and I didn’t wanna miss it. Fortunately, they were slated to hit the stage at the High Noon Saloon at 6 p.m., allowing me to see what was likely to be the best show of the festival before heading back to Milwaukee to see some touring friends at the Borg Ward. All too easy.
By default, my first option of the day was heading back to my favorite club in Madison, The Frequency, to catch a previously-unheard band called Little Red Wolf. Actually, it wasn’t my first option—according to the schedule, some solo artists were playing at Project Lodge starting at 2 p.m., but I didn’t want to take the chance of ending up in front of people crooning heartfelt ballads on acoustic guitars, so I got started at 4 p.m.. Little Red Wolf ended up being a serviceable all-female folky pop group. Inoffensive enough, but not my scene. So when they were done, I made my way to the High Noon Saloon to catch Low’s openers for the afternoon, The Antlers. The Antlers play an atmospheric sort of guitar/synth/drums mood music that is pleasant enough to listen to at the time, but I’ll be damned if I remember a single song three days later as I type this up. There’s a reason they call ‘em ‘hooks’, boys. An appreciative High Noon crowd was all over them, though, and as pretty, sensitive indie rock goes, it was fine, if a bit samey by the end.
Being ‘samey’ tends to doom a lot of indie bands who use the typical half-hour time slot to keep the audience from noticing that they have only so many tricks up their songwriting sleeve. Most of them could learn a thing or two from Low, who diversify so well that after having not really listened to them for ten years, I suddenly found myself memorizing chorus after chorus and riff after riff of intensely powerful, emotional indie-rock. The opening number alone, a six or seven minute opus called “Shots and Ladders” (thanks, Madison A.V. Club!), reminded me of what I had forgotten about Low since the days of seeing them in Green Bay: One, few bands can handle a slow build of such dynamic range and power, and two, Alan Sparhawk’s guitar is a gritty, noisy beast of an instrument when it gets loud. The band never got so loud that earplugs were overly necessary, but the dynamic shifts were so powerful that when the band got loud, it still hit like a jet engine.
After a very amusing flub during the second song where Sparhawk forgot the words and took about a minute to remember them again, and then snickered to himself a few lines farther down when he sang “But you know every word” (“It’s ok, you’re among friends!” someone in the audience called out), the band settled in and delivered nearly an hour of soaring minimalism, filled out by the sparse, yet precise percussion of Mimi Parker (playing, as she always does, with no bass drum) and Steve Garrington’s bass. And what else can I say? It was heavenly. Epic. Mind-blowing. All the cliché stuff. I left the High Noon Saloon with a smile on my face and a resolve to stop being an idiot and start finding every Low record I can to catch up with the people who, unlike me, aren’t complete rubes. Low made the entire Forward Music Fest worthwhile for me, and I’m sure for many others.