“You should be ashamed of yourselves that you’re not watching Mavis Staples right now.” Before Low had played a single note on the first night of Pitchfork Music Festival 2019, that was how Alan Sparhawk introduced his band. Genuinely aghast that people had come and chosen to listen to their music, rather than the legendary singer with whom they conflicted. Then, in a kind of beleaguered, self-deprecating tone that seemed perfectly characteristic of Low, he continued: “But, we’re here.”
In that moment, he might’ve been downplaying it, a half-hearted promise that Low would try to do something beautiful for all these foolish listeners on the wrong side of Chicago’s Union Park. What followed was the kind of set that just feels inherently out of place at most festivals: a cultishly-beloved band, minimal then volcanic, teasing out songs so that they were equal parts spectral, soothing, and unsettling.
A bit of context is necessary if you really want a sense of what the first day of Pitchfork 2019 was like. If you have been to a summer festival in America, you know it can get a little nasty — all you need is one thunderstorm day, or a heat wave, and standing outside watching music all afternoon can feel a bit oppressive. This was next-level, though. The particular heat wave rolling through Chicago is actually unsafe, with a heat index promising to creep well past 100 degrees; it prompted the festival to promise it’d be bringing “cooling buses” onto the site along with thousands of extra water bottles. It was a truly overwhelming kind of humidity, in which everyone just became accustomed to being soaked all day long. One of those days where you just kinda forget what it’s like to feel anything else.
This, in most cases, is a deeply unpleasant circumstance for a music festival. But there was something about Low’s set — given, aided by the shadier corner Pitchfork’s more intimate Blue Stage occupies — that actually kind of felt perfect in this context. Languid and strung-out by nature, the trio’s music drifted and expanded outwards, as if the heat slowed down time even further on a band who spearheaded a whole genre with the word “slow” in the name.
Low are currently touring in support of last year’s instant classic Double Negative. And if you haven’t seen them and were wondering how they could possibly replicate that album’s sonic nature onstage, the answer is, well, they don’t. Their set was dominated by new songs — mixed with some very old cuts — and for the most part they reproduce those Double Negative tracks by reducing them to guitar, bass, and drums, allowing them to exist onstage in a different form closer to that old Low aesthetic people already know so well.
Those new songs don’t lose any of their potency in the comparatively stripped-down and more straightforward renditions. “Quorum” became an uneasy chant early in the set. “Dancing And Blood,” already a transfixing void of a composition, seemed to exist in even more of a vacuum of silence. It showcased Low’s mastery of using quiet, and then deploying stark, simple, but resounding turns to rupture it. By the time Mimi Parker finally sang the words “dancing and blood,” Sparhawk’s guitar sputtered to life like weathered thunder.
Then they dug way back, for a ’90s one-two of “Do You Know How To Waltz?” and “Lazy.” Sparhawk later quipped about running down their time by playing “the long song,” but anyone who was there knew that center of the set may have been its most powerful moment, an all-encompassing drone with the gravitational pull of a black hole. “Lazy” almost sounded like a defeated hymn afterwards, in the wake of destruction. They closed the whole thing with “Fly,” one of Double Negative’s spacier moments turned sparse but maintaining a faint glimmer of hope.
Besides the manageable space and laidback crowd size, part of the appeal of Pitchfork Music Festival is the fact that they book artists who aren’t on the festival circuit otherwise in any given year, or that they book artists you aren’t likely to see on many festival posters, period. Low would certainly fit into the latter category — in most cases, this was far from what you would call a festival-ready set, even for more alternative-minded listeners.
In fact, this was like the anti-festival set, requiring patience, requiring the crowd to invest in the tiniest of cathartic moments. But if you were there and could follow Low through that, it became the most transporting set of the day, and it’s hard to imagine many others challenging it for the rest of the weekend. There, in this suffocating humidity and blistering sun finally yielding to nightfall, Low’s music almost became bodily. All the empty space, all the drawn-out meditations, they became one with the heat. In some ways, all the factors should’ve been against Low on Friday evening, from that big-name conflict to a sunburnt and worn-out crowd. Instead, their set approached something elemental.