The Low Anthem @ Norwich Arts Centre 18.08.11

From the soft accordion which swells to fill the performance hall as The Low Anthem open their set it becomes apparent that the converted church that is now Norwich Arts Centre is an ideal environment for the hushed and hymnal tones of the Rhode Island group, currently visiting the United Kingdom in support of their 4th album to date: 2011's Smart Flesh.

Aug 18th, 2011 at Norwich Arts Centre / By Matthew Bayfield
The Low Anthem Opening with the title track from the aforementioned album, the bare bones composition of a single guitar accompanied by accordion and a slow rolling drum line are the perfect set-up for a band who seem to be able to generate an effortless sense of warmth and ease in both recording and performance. From the outset the crowd, already in something of a trance from the ethereal vocal performance of sublime support act Lia Ices, are instantly swept up in the gentle ebb of the band's lilting sound. The skeletal framework of the opening arrangement is then embellished with clarinet and minimal brass instrumentation for the majestic 'To Them Ghosts Who Write History Books', taking an already mesmerised crowd only further into something rapidly resembling a religious ceremony.

As the band picks its way through numbers spanning all four albums, including the wonderfully realised 'Ohio' and always popular B-side 'Sally Where'd You Get Your Liquor From?', additional instruments are subtly bought into play, including numerous harmonicas and a masterfully applied singing saw, thus enabling the full range of the band's sound to gently unfold without interrupting the tender atmosphere around the songs. This carefully crafted atmosphere is then thrown to the dogs as the band tear into a booze soaked honky-tonk cover of Tom Waits road trip narrative 'Home I'll Never Be'. It is a bold move in terms of performance, and it takes the docile audience, admittedly from Norfolk and potentially not quite ready for sudden change (we still haven't got a dual carriageway or the Playstation 2), a moment to adjust. By the time the song has reached its galloping finish however people seem to be getting the general idea and a sea of heads begins to bob in approval of the onstage cacophony. This more uptempo style is continued over the next few pieces and provides a definite lift in the tone of the songs and audience. It would be easy with music of this nature for a dour melancholy to set in, as is a commonplace issue with lyrics of this style, but the crowd is frequently interacted with by the band between tracks; from anecdotes of the lighting man's sister inspiring a song to name-checking Neil Young & The Allman Brothers, the vibe is never anything less than personal which gives a certain leverage to perform more of the downbeat numbers.

Such is the main strength of this band, both in the studio and live, as was the case this evening. Without a "big" number to their name, a fact wonderfully referenced by the band when they announce their "smash hit single" 'Charlie Darwin' as an encore piece in light of the fact it failed to chart anywhere (it should have done), the band manages to perform a song of heartstring tugging beauty steeped in tragic melodies and yet still leave the audience whooping, hollering and generally feeling uplifted by its close.