I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from The Low Anthem show, to be honest. While I’ve been a listener for a couple of years now, I had never seen them perform, and I wasn’t sure how their music would translate live. Well, let me tell you, their performance was one of the most beautiful and joyful ones I have ever attended.
First up, though, was William Elliott Whitmore, a folk singer “from the hills of Lee County, Iowa.” This was my first time hearing him live as well, and, man, was I blown away from the very first song he sang, “Lift My Jug,” a jaunty tune employing the use of both a banjo and a kick drum. His voice was soulful, deep, and bordering on the spiritual; an especially perfect accompaniment to those songs of his with themes of politics, redemption, and the plight of the working man (of which there were blessedly aplenty), like “Diggin’ My Grave” and “Old Devils”.
After about a half hour set and an incredibly gracious and gentlemanly departure from the stage by Mr. Whitmore, The Low Anthem appeared. And I do mean “appeared.” The stage was flat-out dark as the members found their instruments, and once they were ready, a couple of lights just lit the stage. (This was to happen between every song, I came to find.) They played quite a few of my favorites, like “Matter of Time,” a song about “the most passive way to look for love, “ and “Ghost Woman Blues,” along with a song I was less familiar with but by which I was totally moved, “To the Ghosts Who Write History Books” (Apparently, I like songs about ghosts.)
There were a number of things that made the show for me. One was the instrumentation for which the band is known. Each member can play several instruments, from the dulcimer to a plain ol' saw, all of which is an absolute pleasure to witness. The vocal abilities are also nothing short of impressive, particularly those of Jocie Adams who at times sang like seraphim, while other times quite literally belted out the blues. Lead singer Ben Knox Miller’s warmth, humor, and audience engagement (right down to a cell phone-whistling-“noise” effect) was also a highlight and helped make the show feel like it was happening in your living room versus on a stage. They closed with an an acoustic guitar-only version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire,” while everyone in the audience sang along, word for word. It was a truly beautiful moment, after which they received a well-deserved standing ovation.
I went in skeptical The Low Anthem could capture live what they’ve managed to create on record, but I went away with the realization that their records don’t nearly do their music justice. By all means, yes, buy their records. Lord yes. But don’t pass up the chance to see them live. You will be nothing short of moved.
On that note, I leave you with my interview with Ben Knox Miller, where we discuss things like the historical aspect of the venue in which they played as well as the musical heritage of rural Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
So this is your last tour for a while, right?
Yeah, it’s our last tour for a while, because we’re taking a break to record a couple records that we’ve written but haven’t had any time at home [in Rhode Island], so it’s kind of the last tour for the material we’ve been touring with for about two and a half years now. We’ve been playing these sets that go chronologically, playing all the material in the order it was sequenced on the records, which has a nice, natural arc to it. We’ve never tried to do a set list like that way, so it’s been pretty fun.
I think William Elliott Whitmore is a pretty damned near perfect fit for support on your tour. How’d that come to be?
I saw him play in Providence, like, five years ago – and he says it’s the only time he’s ever been there – and it was just in this bar, and I was a friend of a friend of the band that was headlining, and he was supporting them at the time, and I bought all his records that he had [smiles], and I’ve been listening to him for a long time. I don’t think anybody had heard of him then. This was before he was on Anti-. He was working with some indie record company at the time. He’s just… He’s just so good, and he’s so consistent. Every night he shows up, he’s a gentleman and gives a great performance.
As you may or may not know, there’s a lot of musical heritage here in Pocahontas County, WV, specifically bluegrass. One of the biggest local musical families is the Hammons, who had a profound influence on the musical and story-telling traditions of Pocahontas County and central Appalachia. Did that have any influence on your decision to play here?
It’s not the music that’s my roots, but I love the Stanley Brothers. They’re one of my favorite live shows I’ve ever seen. Well, it was just Ralph, but he came to play in a local arts center near Rhode Island in Massachussetts, and he was playing with his son and his grandson, so there were three generations of Stanleys. And there’s a lot of roots music in our music, but it’s more Old Time than bluegrass in terms of what we play and also blues. Two of the guys [in the Low Anthem] are real jazz-heads, so they come from jazz and blues, and then I’m more raised on folk music and song writing and Jocie is a classical musician.
Between all of you, how many instruments do you think you play collectively?
We had 26 on Oh My God Charlie Darwin, and then we had 27 on Smart Flesh. We wanted to beat it, so… [laughs].
Who are your musical influences? Who do you love listening to?
Well, one of them is a song-writer named Ivor Cutler, and he’s a Scottish humorist. He writes these very funny songs, and he plays a pump organ like the one that we have except his says “sewer” on it [laughs]. I think he’s also famous for wearing really high socks. He was a school teacher. He didn’t start writing songs until he was in his 40s, and he’s just, like, so whimsical and hilarious. Another guy that I listen to all the time is Captain Beefheart. He’s this whimsical, psychedelic hybrid of Delta Blues and weird art music. He’s pretty out there. Both of them [Cutler and Beefheart] have such levity and a freedom that I’m really attracted to and something that I need an injection of.
And there’s an artist by the name of Mark Mandeville who’s a song-writer in a band called The Accident That Led Me to the World, which I love, but it’s this whole band that as a concept ends in the third record. The records are a narrative, and they go in order, and he hasn’t written the third one yet. It’ll be strange when he does. The arc will be complete. I think that’s a beautiful idea. I love his records, and he just did a solo record with a new band called Old Constitution, which is a straight-ahead country record.
I also love The Felice Brothers. You should check out The Felice Brothers. They’re a really good band.
I’m curious: What made you choose to play the Pocahontas County Opera House here in Marlinton, West Virginia, which happens to be a really small town compared to the cities in which you usually play?
Yeah, it is really small, but I thought the name of the venue was the most beautiful name, “Pocahontas County Opera House.” It just sounded too good to be true, so it had to be beautiful. Then I saw pictures, and it was beautiful. And I just really loved that name. “Pocahontas….”
Portions of this article can originally be found at The Vinyl District. All portions included in the piece you are currently viewing are by Michelle Evans.