What I thought would be a slowdown in Not Just the Tickets has become a bit of a break, but one without regret – a combination of library work, accelerated writing work and other factors has put me in a place where time spent doing not much is time well earned. This said, given a show I’ll be attending this evening, the timing couldn’t be better for talking about another UCI show without ticket or flyer or anything to hand beyond memory, and one from this very time of year. But what a time, and what a show.
You really do get lucky sometimes when it comes to shows and bands, as I’ve said before. The right time and the right place and someone can knock you flat without your planning on it, a case often where little or no knowledge is exactly what’s needed. It also helps to be in a position where there’s a reason for a band to come out and play somewhere, and as I’ve previously discussed in the series UCI was great for that in the early nineties, KUCI no less so. I haven’t gone into discussion too much about specifically radio-station-only broadcasts and interviews at that time, as they weren’t shows per se, and the performance I do have from this band on air wouldn’t actually be recorded for some months. When I saw Low for the first time – when I first learned that they existed and that they did the music they did – was due to chance, location and a benefit show.
It wasn’t a huge one. I’d be hard pressed to remember the reasons why there was a benefit show to start with, or what was the rationale for holding it when it was. It was located in a lower room of the student center, not one of the ones where shows had been held before to my knowledge; then again I hadn’t attended every one that had happened during my months there to that point. I could probably pick out where it had been if I tried but the room itself is long gone in a later remodeling of the complex; it used to look out over a slight slope down to a walkway into Aldrich Park, the center of the campus.
I’d like to say there were about…forty, maybe, in attendance, but it could easily have been more, though not too much more than that. Whatever had happened had been arranged through friends of friends, and unless my memory is completely shot Steve Cronk, general good guy and representative of the Inland Empire at KUCI (one of several around that time – as folks like Peter Hughes and Franklin Bruno and others could easily confirm), had been the prime booker for the show. I’d like to say there was a set by someone else there that evening, either the Big Breakfast or Diskothi-Q or Refrigerator – two to one say it was someone else entirely, though.
I’m pretty positive this show occurred sometime between fall and winter quarter, even more likely between Christmas and New Year’s. It would have been the last time I spent Christmas in Coronado, California; my parents would move north the following summer, but I can’t say I recall anything memorable about that last Christmas given that soon to come event, as no specific plans had yet been made. I probably just wanted to head back after the holidays itself to chill for a bit before launching into my second quarter as a TA as well as making firmer plans for getting the okay for my MA degree – or maybe I just wanted to go back to where all my music and books and more were, who can say.
At one point I thought this show was the one I later walked a fellow KUCI DJ and newspaper writer home from – she was someone I was rather sweet on at the time – but I think that would have been a later show that academic year (or maybe even earlier?), so there’s no extra air of romance, however unrequited, around this particular evening for me. There was the general camaraderie of friends, and I hope a number of people who I figure were there can confirm it and more details about it, assuming they read it. All I learned about the rest of the show after the fact was that Low had apparently been scheduled to play another show in the LA area that evening or the day before but it had fallen through. Steve had encountered the band somewhere earlier in 1993 – CMJ, most likely – and the promos of I Could Live In Hope were already starting to circulate. So one thing led to another and in a quiet, dimly lit UCI student center room, the trio set up and began to play.
It’s of course important to remember that Low didn’t emerge out of a vacuum and when I first heard them that night, I distinctly remember thinking “Wow – sounds a bit like Galaxie 500.” This was before that debut album came out as noted – with production by Kramer, who had notably worked with that earlier band on pretty much everything they’d ever done. So combine that with the trio lineup, a sense for the carefully deliberate in performance and an evident love of Joy Division, and the tags that the band had to deal with for some time to come were in place. If I was guilty of making associations that were overly reductive, I cannot say I was alone in thinking what I did.
As time has gone on, of course, the differences between the bands became clearer and much more notable, and those elements that I didn’t see properly at first that distinguished the groups stood out even from the start. Low, both live and in studio, were about precision rather than reverb and wash – the latter was certainly present at points, but as element rather than dominant feature. Furthermore, the singing of Al and Mimi Sparhawk was miles beyond Dean Wareham’s higher-pitched keening, drowned in said reverb – there was always something very direct, very starkly beautiful, right from the moment Mimi’s drum brushes kicked in with “Words,” which rightly started the set as much as the song started the album.
It was an understandable anthem of sorts, a statement of purpose, the way that the two of them sang “I can hear them” over and again, a calm mantra. It helped that for all that I thought of Galaxie 500, I had never actually seen them live – they were already legendary and, by the time I got to grips with them a bit, already broken up, if only just. So I couldn’t make any direct comparisons, and there was no burden of previous assumptions to deal with in turn with Low. They were there and they performed and good gracious, was it ever something.
I honestly can’t remember what else they played besides “Words” though it’s very likely “Lullaby” got in there, perhaps “Rope,” perhaps “Drag,” almost certainly “Fear” – it wasn’t the full album by any means, I only remember it being something like a five or six song set. If it was longer, well, no complaints I’m sure. For me it was all about the gentle revelation, the sudden sense of ‘wow who ARE these people and how come I haven’t heard about them?’ They might as well have come from another planet – and I don’t say that to joke about Duluth, just that there was only so many ways to learn about a new band, and even college radio DJs all have a first time encounter with something somewhere along the line, especially self-conscious ones like myself.
It wasn’t like I was at the start of a career or anything – had I been in Duluth in similar circumstances, who knows, but they’d already been playing together and then actually signed to a major label, however relatively far removed from the high level acts that Virgin Records was all about at the time. (I am trying to imagine what a showcase performance with the Smashing Pumpkins would have been like – probably a bit…wrong.) Had the band only done the one album for whatever reason, I might look back on it now as a curiosity more than anything else, and I might think of the show in a much different light than I do now. Nobody knows the future in the end, I just knew there was this great band that I really really liked that had completely knocked my socks off in their own intense, focused way.
Jump ahead seventeen years and here I am, a few hours away from seeing the band on a Christmas tour. They’ll be playing up in LA at Spaceland – possibly the last time I’ll see any show there before that venue changes focus in March – and reports from the road say one should expect a slew of new songs from their forthcoming album, most of their Christmas EP and a clutch of others here and there. They’ve had an incredible, at times breathtaking series of albums over the years, Robert Plant’s just been nominated for a Grammy based on his recent covers of their work, and for all the changes in bass players over time Al and Mimi are still there, the eternal core of it all, through many events and sometimes tough circumstances.
I’ll have more to say about Low in a later entry – but for now, I can’t wait to see this show. In its own way, it will be a kind of personal anniversary.