There is a point towards the end of the Low Anthem’s Brighton set when Ben Knox Miller, the lead vocalist and chief songwriter of the band, announces that they are going to play some of their “commercial” songs. It’s an interesting thing to say, purely because the band, with their homemade instruments and penchant for recording in unusual settings – last album “Smart Flesh” was recorded by the band camping out in a huge abandoned soap factory in their hometown of Providence – would be unlikely to ever be considered commercial, even if they did recently feature on the Hunger Games soundtrack. But sometimes music painstakingly created in dusty rooms over the endless stretching months contains a particular alchemy that connects with people, however non-commercial it may seem.
The band has long been based around the core triumverate of Jocie Adams, Jeff Prystowsky and Miller, at one time accompanied by Dan Lefkowitz, then for a while by Mat Davidson around the last time they played Brighton, and now by two new members, trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Irwin – this almost goes without saying with the Low Anthem, everyone plays everything on stage at various times – and Tyler Osborne, who looks like a young Bob Dylan with a mop of unruly hair and waistcoat. This allows the band to create a grand layers of sound and sees Prystowsky spend most of the set on drums with only an occasional foray into his former double bass playing role. Surrounded by a bewildering array of instruments and the obligatory saw, which is played with a bow by Adams, Irwin and Miller at various stages of the set, the band set up is all about creating interesting rich sounds and different textures. If any contemporary American band sound musically like old frontiersmen, it’s the Low Anthem. It’s music that could easily be attended by ghostly sepia images; it is of no era and barely of a genre, though it’s Americana in its very bone marrow.
Good as the band are in their newly shaped quintet, the real magic of the group still resides in those moments when the three longtime members gather around a homemade triangular microphone and sing together, particular on the band’s breakthrough single “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin”. It’s beautiful, Miller’s falsetto an ethereal presence, and Adams – who steps up to lead vocals herself on a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson” at one point in the set – has a voice to match. The chemistry between the three is pivotal to the band’s magic, Miller starting one song only to slip into a rendition of “Happy Birthday” in honour of the self effacing Adams, sending her into a look of particularly bashful disapproval. “It really is Jocie’s birthday”, Prystowsky adds later on, “how old do you think she is?” “12!” shouts someone in the crowd.
A thumping full blast electric version of former acoustic ballad “Apothecary” is wonderfully ragged and pointedly sung by Ben Knox Miller who opens his eyes during the key lyrical moments and appears to be singing to someone particularly close to his heart. Although much of the set is taken up in the more introspective material of “Smart Flesh”, with the majestic “Ghost Woman Blues” and equally lovely “Matter of Time” standing out, there are a couple of diversions. There is the time-honoured rendition of “This God Damn House”, written by Dan Lefkowitz before he left the band without warning, leaving the song and the keys to the mini-van on the side, but the rollicking Tom Waits cover “Down There by the Train” is another standout, and the more familiar material from “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” has lost none of its lustre, “Ticket Taker” and “To Ohio” proving as popular as always.
The gradual evolution of the Low Anthem is a beguiling thing to watch. Their way of making music, of recording and creating, seems to have put them into the territory of unlikely crossover success. After Miller semi-apologises for playing the commercial songs he tells a story about the band crossing a toll gate in their tour van and Prystowsky being asked by the toll officer if the trip was for commercial or personal reasons. “Have you heard the music?” replied the bassist. It’s an amusing anecdote but while the band remain resolutely independent in their approach, increasingly people have indeed heard the music, and both the sold out shows and the blockbuster film soundtracks tell their own story.