Low / Dec. 8, 2006 / Chicago (Old Town School of Folk Music)

"Consistency" often goes an unheralded quality in rock, commonly applied backhandedly to imply doing the same thing over and over again rather than one or two things extremely well. Using the latter d

"Consistency" often goes an unheralded quality in rock, commonly applied backhandedly to imply doing the same thing over and over again rather than one or two things extremely well. Using the latter definition, Low's long been one of the most consistent rock acts, doing more with less than most bands manage with countless bells and whistles. Since their 1994 inception, the Minnesoata band's barely gone a year or two without releasing something of note, from an unbroken streak of great records to 1999's quiet classic "Christmas" EP.

Throughout 2005, however, Low faced some of the biggest setbacks of its career, including the departure of longtime bassist Zak Sally and the mental breakdown of leader Alan Sparhawk. But despite it all, the group seems to have bounced back. New bassist Matt Livingston was enlisted, Sparhawk cleared his mind (and released a solo album), and somewhere along the line the band recorded its upcoming eighth album, "Drums & Guns."

If the trio's performance at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music was any indication, those new songs stand as some of Low's strongest, and also its darkest, full of more than the usual images of death, violence and doom. Songs such as "Violent Past," "Belarus," "Dragonfly," the Spanish-guitar laden "Sandinista" and "Murderer," all from the new disc (due in March from Sub Pop) found the band a little tentative but open to experimentation. Sparhawk regularly toyed with an array of samplers and effects at his feet, busted out a couple of drum machine beats and had no problem upping the volume in the hushed, intimate venue for a few noisy guitar solos.

This being one of a handful of special holiday shows, and Low's holiday of choice being Christmas, the band invited out four friends from back home and, expanded to a seven-piece, tackled most of the songs from the "Christmas" EP. Of course, "One Special Gift" was spooky enough to make you swear off the season forever, but the jingling, jangling "Just Like Christmas" found an uncharacteristically upbeat/uptempo way for Low to capture the necessary beats of a Christmas standard without giving way to cliche.

Sparhawk apologized in advance before segueing into John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" -- "At first it doesn't taste so well..." he warned -- but he needn't have worried. Back for an encore, the group played its by now parallel standard of a slo-mo "Little Drummer Boy" and left the sold out venue on a particularly down note with "Pretty People," proclaiming the inevitable deaths of soldiers, babies, poets, liars and all pretty people. Uh, Merry Christmas, everybody!
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