LIVE: The Low Anthem @ MASS MoCA, 3/5/11

“I hope you don’t mind if we play a song that we’ve already played tonight,” Ben Knox Miller told the sold out crowd at MASS MoCA, as the Low Anthem returned to the stage for their encore.

The quartet began singing as he plucked his banjo so quietly, so delicately that the song was almost a cappella. And it took the crowd a minute or two to recognize the tune – the Tom Waits-Jack Kerouac “Home I’ll Never Be” – because it was so radically different than the clattering, amped-up rendition of the same song that they had performed just an hour earlier.

That’s the Low Anthem in a nutshell. They’ve got the neo old-timey thing down cold, conjuring up back-porch incantations with hymn-like reverence and ragged righteousness. But they can also plug-in and rock with a funky, Band-like Catskill cacophony.

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Showcasing their new album, “Smart Flesh,” in MASS MoCA’s upstairs B-10 Lounge, the band was relaxed but intense, opening the show with “Ghost Woman Blues,” gathered around a single microphone that seemed to capture their every breath.

They were armed with a mighty and varied arsenal of instruments – acoustic guitar, clarinet (sometimes two clarinets), drums, electric bass, hammered dulcimer, pump organ, an E-flat marching horn, harmonicas, electric guitar, fiddle, accordion, a set of crotales (played with a violin bow), harmonium, acoustic bass, trumpet, jaw harp, banjo, musical saw and assorted percussion instruments. And they used every one of them during their 90-minute performance. The four bandmembers – Jeff Prystowsky, Jocie Adams and Mat Davidson, in addition to Knox Miller – are nothing if not versatile.

“Hey, All You Hippies” was a woozy, crashing stroll through off-kilter carnival music. “Apothecary Love” was a John Prine-like, folk-country waltz. And the show-closing “Smart Flesh” was a gentle, soothing lullaby.

Daniel Lefkowitz – a former member of the band, who also opened the show with a short, five-song, solo set that included Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” – joined the band for a couple of numbers, but not for their version of his “This God Damn House,” which built to a hypnotic coda as Knox Miller cajoled crowd members into joining him for a bout of a cell-phone feedback chirping.

And Knox Miller is a true chameleon of a vocalist – stretching his vocal cords throughout the evening from hell-bent rock ‘n’ roll howl to an eerie, keening falsetto on “Love and Altar” and the final encore of “Charlie Darwin.”

The show sold out weeks in advance, and there was some discussion about moving it to MASS MoCA’s larger Hunter Center, but the intimate B-10 Lounge was the perfect setting for their moody, thoroughly organic performance.

And besides, the Low Anthem will get their chance in the Hunter Center next month, when they open for Iron & Wine on Saturday, April 16. Unfortunately, that show is already sold out, too.

Michael Eck’s review @ The Times Union

Ghost Woman Blues
Ticket Taker
Sally, Where’d You get Your Liquor From
Home I’ll Never Be
To the Ghosts Who Write the History Books
Matter of Time
This God Damn House
??? (with Daniel Lefkowitz)
Dreams Can Chase You Down (with Daniel Lefkowitz)
Hey, All You Hippies
Boeing 737
Apothecary Love
To Ohio
Love and Altar
Smart Flesh
Home I’ll Never Be
Charlie Darwin

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