How Low helped me find my Porgy and Bess
July 1, 2016
Words: Jasper Willems
Pictures: Niels Vinck
What do Low and Porgy and Bess have in common you say? Not much, except that they both crossed my mind during an eventful day at this year’s Best Kept Secret festival. A personal story.
For many people, music festivals are all about escapism and just having the golly time of their lives. I kind of envy that outset: take a break from your workaday lull and simply ignore your inhibitions for the weekend. Well, I don’t REALLY envy it, because I’m simply not wired that way. From my perspective, three days of non-stop music isn’t a gleeful carousel ride, but a frantic forage for intermittent moments of grace. Sometimes, just sometimes, these are moments I’ll cherish till the day I die. To experience a moment like that, and not let it go to waste, I’ll happily endure an abundance of obnoxious people, general discomfort, constant fatigue and aimless meandering.
I sound like a curmudgeon here, I know. But I don’t consider all that discomfort as detrimental per se. Feeling empty or downtrodden can be big catalyst why a good festival gig potentially makes a bigger impact than a good club show. I’m a big advocate of club shows, because it’s a fairly safe emotional investment: you gear up your anticipation for just one or two shows, so the reciprocity between you as an audience member and the band on stage is fairly of equal ratio, good or bad.
At festivals it’s much harder to gear up for a show, because there are so many. I feel scattered and disoriented, because there’s so much stuff going on around me at all times. For most people it’s easy to soak in. But for Aspies (like myself), those circumstances range from slightly unnerving to downright terrifying. The whole disconnect — that what makes you different from the rest — becomes dramatically magnified at festivals. People are — supposed — to have fun here, and when people are having fun, they often don’t make a lot of sense. They scream, they revert to their infant selves, they are wholly unpredictable.
Which is great for them. But my brain, to a fault, is high-wired to kind of make sense of everything around me. And when things stop making sense (take that from a fellow — alleged — Aspie), you start to feel increasingly alienated and alone. One little gnome on your shoulder screams: “Let yourself go. You’re at a festival, you’re obliged to have a good time.” Then the other whispers: “It’s okay to be your misanthropic self, as long as you don’t impose it on anyone else.” You eventually start to feel like the bubble boy from that Seinfeld-episode… Mired in complete disconnect. You shut yourself down.
At this year’s Best Kept Secret Festival, the emotional fatigue and emptiness reached its pinnacle when Destroyer played. It was a wonderful show, I might add. Dan Bejar was his usual sniding self, despondently ambling on stage as his tight-as-fuck backing ensemble showered the audience with full-blown yacht rock romanticism. Lovers were canoodling and PDA-ing unrepentantly to The River, and all the while, Bejar scorns about “a comedy of souls” and “a windowless room on the outskirts of town”. It basically played right into my emotional state at the time: surrounded by the riches of people enjoying the show, I was feeling isolated, envious and spiteful of them.
As I zoned in on Bejar’s derision, I realized I was in on the joke. I interviewed Bejar at length last year, so it was nigh impossible to switch off my incredulousness about the whole situation. But instead of feeling smug about ‘getting it’, I just felt empty and utterly depressed. Fortuitously, I told Bejar back then (thankfully I still had the recording to look it up) that many people generally listen to Beatles or Byrds-songs so they can identify with the lyrics in this testimonial way. I always felt Destroyer was the antithesis, approaching music in this very intuitive reactionary way, never deducing a songs true meaning. I admire that about him, that’s simply his genius.
So frankly, I was curious if there was music out there powerful enough to circumvent even Dan Bejar’s contrarian instincts. A song that just makes him stop dead in his tracks. “I think I was drunk,” he answered. “But that still counts. When I heard a song that felt like the universe was addressing me, specifically.” After reverting into one of those awkward pauses he’s known for, he answered: “Miles Davis’s version of I Loves You Porgy from his Porgy and Bess album. It’s so floaty… It kind of reminded me of Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. Whenever I heard that version of I Loves You Porgy, I’m incapable of doing anything else.”
I left about 45-minutes into the Destroyer-gig. I didn’t need to experience music that upholded my feelings. I needed that emotional kick in the nuts that Bejar talked about. My own Porgy and Bess. The one band left I wanted to see was Low. I wasn’t expecting to be overwhelmed. I saw Low play at Doornroosje about five years ago. I remember it as a good gig. To my surprise, they played Shame, one of my favorite tunes of all time. The video for it is just incredible (see below). Still, it wasn’t a life-affirming evening, just very satisfactory.
As I waited for the gig to start, there was pretty heavy rainfall across the terrain. When I stationed myself inside the stage tent, I was a depressed husk of human flesh, pretty much ready to call it a night. I felt drained, both emotionally and physically. After a day’s worth of trying to be great company for the people enjoy being around, whilst suppressing this permeating anxiety, I figured Low would be a great band to sputter out to. But, as much as I dig Low, I wasn’t expecting anything particularly eventful.
Turns out Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and Steve Garrington were up to something special, whether they initially realized it themselves or not. At first, I was startled at how effortlessly Low’s sparse, redolent music sucked everything into a vacuum. Between the empty spaces of songs like Plastic Cup and Lies, you could hear harsh ambiance of rain crashing down, in a sense cutting the audience off from all the festival hullabaloo.
Those two songs in particular have something cool in common: they end by deliberately breaking the fourth wall. The last line of Plastic Cup reads: “Maybe you should go and write your own damn song.” And on Lies, Sparhawk laments: “I should be sleeping by the lonely side/Instead of working on this song all night.” When I interviewed Sparhawk a year ago, he told me this about the latter: “It was a struggle writing Lies especially. I remember I kept going back to it: “I really like this, I believe that this is a good song.” I could sense something there, but I just couldn’t finish it. It’s honest moment, even though it really sticks out. Probably the most true line in the entire song!”
When Low played, I too felt could just be at peace “giving up” and let all the confronting and tense feelings of alienation GO. When Mimi started singing Holy Ghost in that typically nurturing, husky voice of hers, I felt all my defense mechanisms just crumble and fall. And, strangely I felt the same happening to those around me. Suddenly, I wasn’t the lone outcast anymore. On top of that, I ran into friends of mine who I truly admire and care about, and, most of all, felt safe around to just BE. People were shedding tears, hugging each other. Smiling. Listening.
The special thing about Low is that they can ace a smashing cover of Rihanna ft. Mikki Ekko’s Stay or perform a polarizing 30-minute drone set, and still sound like friggin’ Low. I mean, how many bands can get away with that? Anyway, I digress. But the point I’m trying to make: it wasn’t the signature poignant vocal harmonies of Sparhawk and Parker that hit home. The most astronomically beautiful moments of this show happened once Sparhawk unhinged into these arresting torrents of guitar noise and feedback. It wasn’t harsh, abrasive noise, nor was it calculating… It was beautiful and majestic.
It looked almost as if something divine has taken possession of Sparhawk’s body, using him as a conductor to unleash a chain of lightning bolts upon the audience, almost like the friggin’ Ark Of The Covenant. It was this immense physical feeling: it wasn’t sadness, it wasn’t joy, but just this visceral force that pulled everything out at once. I’ve never felt so overwhelmed at a concert in my entire life as when Low did ‘Do You Know How To Waltz?’. Sure, I’ve seen Swans play a few times, which is always a fantastic exercise. Witnessing Michael Gira and his phalanx, that’s more like mortal beings wielding this sonic battering ram to barge into heaven’s gate.
But this, this was different. Going back to when I interviewed Sparhawk a year ago, he spoke about activities he indulges in during the years in-between albums. He told me he had been avidly gardening at the time. “All the power of it, all the substance of it. It has nothing to do with me. All I did was put the corn in a row. You get this satisfaction of “Oh, I’ve organized this”, and slowly over time it dawns on you that you didn’t do this. Look how beautiful… Look how much more perfect this is than anything you could’ve organized. I don’t see how you could watch that process happen and then think that it’s because of you. You get to be part of something beautiful. Even if it’s a small part.”
That’s kind of how that beautiful ooze of noise felt, as it washed over me and everyone else in the crowd. As an agnostic romantic, I dare say this was as close to a religious experience as anything. But when I asked Sparhawk whether or not this ‘perfection’ comes from believing in a higher power, he begged to differ. “No, because you watch it every day. You don’t even have to touch it… These things just happen.”
I, for one, will cherish experiencing my own Porgy and Bess that day, because it happened so unexpectedly. If I had just felt fine and dandy over the course of the festival, I might not have been moved by Low at all. Just goes to show how deeply personal a concert experience can be, how much of it just boils down to circumstance. Low’s breathtaking performance at Best Kept Secret showed me that sinking beneath the lowest canyons makes you cherish the highest peaks all the more. Even if it means that most of the time, you’re busy treading the middle ground in your little messed-up state.
Oh lord, I’m on my way.
Thanks for the incredible portrait, Niels Vinck!