During a trip east with Devin and Susannah to visit Musikfest in Bethlehem and see their grandmother, Lu, perform there, I encountered The Low Anthem on one of the new stages on the south side of the river, beside the old steel company blast furnaces. I had heard an NPR feature about this group a year ago that piqued my interest — mentioned that they met as students at Brown. Accompanied by Lu and my cousins Billy, Tina and Tony, we got a chance to see and hear them live. Wow. A revelation, even though they were competing with some heavy decibel sound bleed coming from Steve Miller on a larger stage nearby (major Musikfest miscalculation). They featured songs from their best known collection thus far, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, recorded on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island in the winter. The Low Anthem is a remarkable quartet of soulful, genre-bending musicians, lifting traditional American folk styles into a heady mix of unexpected instrumentation, gutsy and ethereal vocals, smart lyrics and enchanting harmonies. Three guys and a girl, each play about 5 instruments, including (besides guitar and banjo) clarinet and jaw harp, musical saw, string and electric bass and an antique pump organ. I read somewhere they use 34 instruments in all. Trying to describe it, I would say it’s cerebral heartland music made on the east coast.
Ben Knox Miller, the lead singer, has a vocal timbre and range that somehow manage to evoke both Neil Young and Art Garfunkel. Jocie Adams, the classical clarinetist, can also wail like a banshee, as she proved on their hoe down encore of “Cigareets and Whiskey.” The CD title song “Charlie Darwin” is indeed an anthem, maybe for a chamber choir, as well as an existential poem of great beauty. Sounds like a signature tune. It was one of those nights when your skin, along with your ears, told you you were witnessing something magical that you would never forget. Watch out for this bunch.