Low and Barbarossa: Queens Social Club, Sheffield

Going to see, for the first time, a headline act known for music seemingly so minimal barely anything happens, I’d imagined this was going to be a tough gig to review. Thankfully, this was very much not the reality of the evening, tho there were still many surprises awaiting me.

To set the scene for anyone who’s not been to the Queens Social Club, it very much is just that, in all it’s grimy Northern dinginess. The first time I’d been there was just a few weeks prior for the Wet Nuns last ever gig. I’d walked in the wrong door to the working mens club with it’s dirty orange light, nicotine tinted decor, locals slowly and suspiciously peering over their pints at me in that comic (though also a bit unnerving) fashion. Clearly the wrong place – this isn’t the final showdown of Yorkshire’s stoner blues-metal two piece. This was where old men came to spend their pensions. Next door – that’d be the place. On first glance, the main gig venue itself is not that far removed from it’s neighbour – gloss varnished wooden panel walls, fake office ceilings and those tacky, tinsly strip curtains you might find in betting shops, comedy night stages, strip bars and working mens clubs… and yet the atmosphere was of course so completely different it was again quite unnerving. And so the evening went – the Wet Nuns went down kicking and screaming, the punchline of their 4 year joke, delivered fittingly in a place every bit as filthy and self-deprecating as the music itself, an evening brimming with emotion, as brutally unsubtle as the antagonists themselves.

And so here I was, walking into the same venue where support act Barbarossa had just come on stage and the atmosphere, once again couldn’t have been more different. Stood behind a series of keyboards and organs, this one man band, singing his heart out seemed to suit the setting once again, but this time almost uncomfortably so, like an act from Jim Broadbent’s Scarborough cabaret hall in Little Voice, the old Wurlitzer organ swapped for vocoders and synths. Self confessed long time fan of Low themselves, James Mathé had obvious vocal influences from the likes Bon Iver, Jose Gonzales, Thom Yorke and Local Natives with his frail, effects heavy voice. Interestingly, his music, whilst still very minimalist and in keeping with what Low were to deliver next, was also purely, and at times painfully electronic. Not that this is a bad thing – to look at the likes of Bon Iver and Thom Yorke and also bands such as Mogwai (another band that would go down well in this venue), it seems that moving further from conventional and acoustic towards the avant-garde electronic is the only possible progression. Barbarossa seems to have simply skipped these early steps and dived in at the end point. What the music did have though was emotion and plenty of it. As odd as it was to see a Londoner in an NY baseball cap on the spangly stage of a northern social club, he was unfazed by it all, and gave it everything. Where other bands could safely sit behind the somewhat cynical irony of their surroundings, it was certainly admirable to see someone who was this unfazed and committed to delivery.

An appreciative support set closed and the room soon filled up, the atmosphere building nicely. The 5 minute timer went up on the dishevelled fabric projector screen behind the stage announcing Low’s imminent arrival. The countdown was a simple yet very effective trick that built tension in the room. With not a second wasted, Low were on stage and without allowing themselves time to even acknowledge the crowd, they went straight into their first song. Despite the countdown, this still seemed to catch the entire crowd off guard and something I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced before happened: a whole room full of people, without any kind of verbal prompt, just stopped talking in the space of about 2 seconds. Barely a few barely audible bars into the first song and my ears were ringing with the deafening silence of the room. It was all so sudden I swear some people were cut off mid-sentence. Never has a can of Red Stripe being opened sounded so loud. Yet another unnerving experience at the Queens Social Club.

What followed then was a set full of songs dripping with the importance of message and an urgency you wouldn’t expect of music so slow. After the third song, they paused briefly to address the enthralled audience, with a calm yet confident familiarity. Acknowledging the venue itself as their spiritual and physical home and their appreciation at being back, it was impossible not to warm to them.

The looped film footage of old, faded scenes that went along behind them only added to the experience – a train ploughing along it’s tracks through tunnels, past countryside brought even more weight to the purposeful nature of their music. It would be easy to hear a band like Low and at first assume laziness on their part, a tendency to drag their heels musically. Hearing and watching them perform live however, it couldn’t be further from the truth – here was a band who made every note count, not a single frivolous chord, nor a single second wasted. Songs such as Dinosaur Act, so economical with it’s notes, but not the truth conveyed, where every strum of the guitar comes at a cost but one resolutely and willingly paid.

It would be easy to also bring up the Mormon spirituality that has followed them through the years. To see them through those preconceived filters however, would again be doing them a disservice. Whilst some parts of the set saw a sea of slowly swaying heads gently nodding along to their chanting of “I am nothing but heart”, we then find them wrestling with a darker more bitter and resigned moment, “One more thing before I go, One more thing I’ll ask you Lord, You may need a murderer, Someone to do your dirty work” to the projected backdrop of an old clock winding forwards at high speed. There are even occasions where I catch singer Alan Sparhawk’s hands gesticulating in a manner not entirely unlike traditional shapemusic, urging the congregation to join them in their journey. Perhaps fittingly, and to again dispel cheap criticism that their music is also depressing, the set closes with a simple message of humility “I need your grace alone, I don’t need a laser beam”.

As the lights come back on, we find ourselves not swept up in an alien, lofty spirituality but one far more at home and appreciative of the dirty, unwashed earthiness of the heathen venue that has played host to us tonight. We feel an affinity and acceptance of it, an awareness of a bigger picture, a history and shared purpose to be a part of.

This evening, Low were a band who despite (or perhaps even more so because of) their gaudy surroundings, were able to deliver their message in a genuine and heart felt manner, more than capable of engaging and captivating their audience every precious second of the set. To do so with such persistence and consistency is something truly impressive of a band that is some 20 years along the train tracks.