Low Anthem/Lissie | 03.12 | Philadelphia

Words & Images by: Jake Krolick

The Low Anthem/Lissie :: 03.12.10 :: First Unitarian :: Philadelphia, PA

Lissie :: 03.12 :: Philadelphia, PA
At first, sitting on a pew in a church waiting for a rock show whilst drinking PBR seemed vaguely sacrilegious, but when the music began, surrounded by a few hundred others quietly enjoying a slice of Americana music, the performance didn't seem that far from any other traditional worship service. The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia is no stranger to music. The old wooden pews have felt the weight of several lifetimes of prayer. This evening's prayer just happened to come in the form of music.

The first of a trio of bands, Beantown pluckers Annie and the Beekeepers began the evening on a delightful note as they filled the sanctuary with a charming homespun selection of old-time bluegrass tunes that crept along on pace with the heavy handed upright bass, banjo and guitar. They pulled tones straight out of another era as the two female leads, Annie Lynch and Alexandra Spalding, sang "Always in Love." The song's soaring melodies and distinctive plucked chords moved us to tap our feet and nod our heads in appreciation. Ken Woodward and a friend of theirs from college on loan from Memphis filled in the gaps with lap steel guitar and bass.

Next, Lissie Maurus came on like a warm California breeze, all laid back and shoeless. This Illinois native ran to California five years ago and sure hasn't hurt the growing country/folk scene settling in Los Angeles. Her debut EP, Why You Runnin', has been making music lovers and critics take notice. Local radio station WXPN has not let a day go by in over a month without playing her songs. Lissie makes music that is hard to shy away from. Her throwback approach to '70s folk rock contains just enough psychedelic spike and indie grit to really get the blood pumping.

Lissie :: 03.12 :: Philadelphia
Underneath the loud guitars and striking songs is Maurus herself. She's an instantly likeable performer whose comfort level onstage places a calm over the crowd. All you can see is her scraggly blond hair and huge glasses poking from behind the mic stand. She sang smoky circles that were punctuated with powerful cries and low, drawn out bits of uplifting tonal perfection. Her songs created a broad warm atmosphere that echoed around the beams and vaulted ceilings. The distance between the pews and the stage melted as we leaned in closer to be nearer to this unique performer. Maurus was soon surrounded by several hundred attentive, glowing admirers, her natural draw generated not only by who she is now but perhaps more for what she will inevitably become. By her side were Lewis Keller, her bass playing kick drum and hi-hat drummer, and dread-locked lead guitarist Eric Sullivan. Other than Sullivan's solos, her bandmates best added to the performance by harmonizing with Lissie vocally.

The opening cover of Hank William' "Wedding Bells" was an apropos choice to set the mood. They ran circles around the venue with their three-part harmonies on "Here Before," another track off her breakthrough EP. Lissie kicked her leg as she worked her electric guitar, strumming the low-slung instrument with a gutsy hand and rhythmic confidence. She reminded me of Heartless Bastards' Erika Wennerstrom with a whiskey smooth stir of Susan Tedeschi and a haunting, female yang to Bon Iver's male yin.

The first real rock moment of the evening came at the end of "In Sleep," Maurus' tale of lost luggage on a flight across the pond from England to Philly. If she had a full drum set on this tune our numbers would have lost it and started dancing with the Holy Spirit in the aisles. "In Sleep" is an addictive piece of pop folk psychedelia that has the potential to reach the masses. The song flowed with a heavy drip of bass and hi-hat that tangled with bright, grain soaked vocals, which built in waves and pulled you into a wonderful rock & roll trance. Lissie never missed a note, spilling out warm, vintage tones as she held the refrain for a few measures on the chorus: "In sleep is the only place I get to see him/ I get to love him/ I love him/ I love him/ I love him."

The Low Anthem :: 03.12 :: Philadelphia
Lissie's set ended with a stellar rendition of "Little Lovin'." This version took the remarkable studio version and added a clapping jam involving the audience, and if you only caught that portion of the evening you would have sworn it was a spirited church service.

It's not an easy task following two immensely talented bands with distinct voices, unless you're the Providence-based roots band The Low Anthem that is. They did what they do best and produced dreamlike music that crept into our heads like a slow, delicate fog rising from melting evening snow. The stage swelled with musical instruments. A list on the band's MySpace page boasts a slew of instruments on tour with them, including a WWI portable pump organ, a harmonium, a rusty saw, and a particularly sizzling set of crotales amongst other items you may or may not recognize.

Founding member Ben Knox Miller began with a haunting lo-fi story of the "Ticket Taker" sung with his soft, welcoming voice. The aloof qualities of Jocie Adams' clarinet blended with the quirky side of Mat Davidson's saw and placed our mouths agape. The Low Anthem had us captivated with silence. Instead of building on Lissie's energy, they experimented with the limits of the sanctuary, making its acoustics bend in their favor as they performed a lullaby that paid homage to Leonard Cohen.

The Low Anthem shares a sensibility and similarity to Andrew Bird, but they play with the music like the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey or Marco Benevento Trio. The Low Anthem acknowledged a deep respect for old music and maybe more so for classic instruments. Their own music is filled with spirits of Americana, and you can hear echoes of Chris Hillman and Woody Guthrie. They moved easily from Jack Kerouac to Tom Waits and showed signs of fire during "Horizon Is a Beltway," another track off of their acclaimed 2009 acclaimed release Oh My God, Charlie Darwin.

Onstage the four band members were everywhere, and they constantly switched instruments. Adams handed over the drums to bassist Jeff Prystowsky on "Sally, Where'd You Get Your Liquor From?" as we stomped to the simple, powerful beat pouring from the stacks on either side of the stage. Adams eventually played us back to silence with long-drawn bow strokes on the crotales. Her touch produced a resonance that echoed throughout the church as she made the crotales cry spectral tones skyward.

It was Prystowsky's wildly concocted upright bass solo and Miller's drumming that brought us back to reality as Davidson's piano work carried us passionately forward. Before they concluded with "To Ohio," The Low Anthem produced one of the most intriguing musical experiments many of us had ever witnessed. Miller said that "To the Ghosts Who Write History Books" would start as a sing-along and would change into something beautiful and different by the last verses. He noted that if we came with someone else that we should call each other and place the phones on speakerphone next to one another. Not wanting to taint the beautiful performance with a harsh cell phone noise, this sent hushed mumbles through the crowd. We doubted at first, but as we each started to hear the result we all followed along. As the song grew to a finale, the sonic reverberance of two cell phones speaking to each other grew and the sanctuary echoed with a most amazing, hollow tone of sonic bliss. We giggled at the resulting noises as a new being took shape, one that we all created and left there in the hiss and buzz of our own portable talking devices.

All three bands are on tour from the East Coast to SXSW, where they will each play several showcases. Judging from the performances in Philadelphia, you'll be hearing a lot more about these bands soon if you don't already adore them now.

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