DULUTH – White exhaust plumes and the occasional slow-passing, salt-encrusted car were about the only things moving along Superior Street last Thursday night, when once again the windchill dipped below zero and the most revered band in town dropped into Fitger’s Brewhouse.
“This is Week 4 of our seven-week tour of Duluth,” singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk said from the corner of the unpretentious downtown brewpub. He then launched into a gospel-tinged 2001 song called “Lordy,” obscure even by his standards.
Low is at it again. A band that tested audiences in the mid-1990s with several records full of slow-moving, quiet rock music — the seeming antithesis to what rock music is all about — Sparhawk’s celebrated trio has grown louder and more accessible over the years. But then it raised equal doses of ire and awe at last summer’s Rock the Garden concert in Minneapolis when it played a droning, one-song, 28-minute set.
For their first major in-state outing since then, Low’s members decided to evaluate their 20-year discography and test themselves with a series of seven weekly gigs at Fitger’s. They will play every song they’ve ever released on record, in random order.
Last week’s two-part concert drew an odd mix of Duluth scenesters, a few diehard fans from the Twin Cities and many random locals simply looking for something to do.
During a conversation earlier in the day, Sparhawk didn’t deny that he, too, was partly just looking for a way to kill off the dead of winter when he thought up the seven-part series, which continues for three more Thursdays, ending Feb. 27.
After touring for much of 2013, his band opted to take off most of the winter. He filled the first part of the season by producing the next album for fellow Duluthians Trampled by Turtles. He originally planned to play these January-February gigs as a solo act, but the thought of revisiting his band’s entire catalog has been gnawing at him since their pals in Wilco did it in 2007. (Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy produced Low’s 2013 record, “The Invisible Way”.)
“I was worried we would loathe the idea by now, but not yet,” he said. “Each week, it’s been a new challenge. It’s like exercise for us, really.”
An odd brew
The members of Low were about the only ones in the brewpub not sipping from a beer pint. Sparhawk and his wife, drummer/singer Mimi Parker, don’t drink — just one reason Fitger’s seems an unusual place to launch one of their most ambitious musical undertakings.
“The sound is pretty horrible in the room,” Sparhawk admitted beforehand, calling the sound mixer “very basic” and the angles in the room “very hard on the acoustics.”
Lined with bricks and cement from the original 1880s-era Fitger’s brewery, the Brewhouse is set up more for acoustic singer/songwriters such as Charlie Parr, who performs there most Wednesdays. But there’s a “background music” aspect to Fitger’s gigs that appealed to them.
Bassist Steve Garrington barely had room to set down his glass of red wine atop the keyboard in the cramped “stage” — really just a cordoned-off corner where musicians sit eye to eye with the audience. Not around for the first 14 years of the band, Garrington shrugged off the challenge of learning old songs he has never played.
“Al and Mim haven’t played a lot of them in forever,” he said.
The set lists are literally pulled out of a bag. Low printed out the 170-plus song titles and cut them up into slips, which are drawn the Sunday before each show, allowing the band a half week to revisit the songs.
“Each week, there have been three or four songs where we really need to look them up and give them a listen,” Sparhawk said. “Some others, it might take me a few minutes to remember the guitar parts. Some of them weren’t that complicated to begin with, because it’s all we could do then.”
In addition to the opening song “Lordy” — from a 2001 EP with Australian instrumental group the Dirty Three — other deep cuts at last week’s show included: “Lazy,” “Slide” and “Rope,” all from their 1994 debut album; “Those Girls” (a k a “Song for Nico”), first recorded in a 1999 session with legendary BBC Radio DJ John Peel; “Boyfriends & Girlfriends,” from a 2004 rarities box set, and even one of the tracks from Low’s popular 1999 “Christmas” EP, “One Special Gift.”
The hits have been popping up intermittently, too. Last week featured the more recent singles “Murderer” and “Try to Sleep,” the latter known for its viral video starring actor John Stamos (alas, no Stamos sightings at Fitger’s). They also played “When I Go Deaf” and “Broadway (So Many People)” from their most acclaimed record, 2005’s “The Great Destroyer,” as well a highlight from last year’s album, “You See Everything.”
The show took something of a surreal, quintessential Duluth turn when the band performed “Starfire,” a 1999 song inspired by the pirate radio broadcasts of the couple’s former nanny, Scott “Starfire” Lunt — who has attended the shows, and is also the namesake of Fitger’s flagship beer, Starfire Ale.
Things also turned a tad sentimental when it came to the oldest of the songs. Before “Rope” and “Slide,” Sparhawk recounted the thrill of traveling to New Jersey in 1994 to make their first record at a lo-fi, four-track studio.
“A lot of people at the time were excited about the future of music, and we just happened to be around at the right time,” he said.
Sparhawk said the marathon has given the band a better perspective on their past: “Some of those more dirgey old songs were good songs, we just played them until they killed us.” The series should also serve as inspiration as they enter their third decade as a band.
“I think of bands I liked in high school that seemed like they were ‘old’ bands then, and they weren’t around even close to 20 years,” he said, laughing.
You can’t say Low has failed to keep things interesting.