Alan Sparhawk review – beautiful, obliterating hymns to Low’s Mimi Parker | Music

todayNovember 12, 2023 5

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This time last year, Low were due to headline Le Guess Who, an experimental music festival in Utrecht. Instead, the beloved US indie band had to cancel their tour dates owing to the declining health of singer and drummer Mimi Parker, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years prior. On 5 November 2022, she died at home in Duluth, Minnesota, aged 55. Her loss essentially brought to an end the haunting, hymnal group that she and husband Alan Sparhawk formed in 1993, having first met in primary school, and which had entered a period of near warp-speed evolution in their final two albums, 2018’s distorted, furious Double Negative and 2021’s Hey What.

Until this return to Le Guess Who, Sparhawk has only performed music in Duluth and in Minneapolis, in two bands that include their son, Cyrus, as a member (they also have a daughter, Hollis): the Roy Ayers and Curtis Mayfield-inspired funk outfit Derecho and Afro-Cuban four-piece Damien, in which Sparhawk has been known to perform dressed as a ship’s captain. On Saturday night to a packed Protestant church, it initially seems as though his highly anticipated solo debut might tend to the former: Sparhawk on guitar, his long, grizzled hair suggesting a heavy metal priest; Cyrus on bass; Owen Mahon on drums; and Dave Carroll on banjo, opening with Liquid Love, a wiggly, open-ended instrumental funk workout with a jazzy refrain that sits somewhere between Thundercat and Chicago post-rockers the Sea and Cake.

If they noodled around like this for the whole set, you suspect the audience would still have been delighted, such is the goodwill towards the Sparhawks and the awareness of the huge void on stage that Parker would once have filled. But then they embark on a set list of beautiful, obliterating new songs that reverberate within that chasm.

Powerfully simple … (l-r) Cyrus Sparhawk, Alan Sparhawk and Dave Carroll. Photograph: Melanie Marsman

“When you flew out the window and into the sunset, I thought that I would never stop screaming … if you and I’s love is for ever then I’ll probably be screaming that long,” he sings on Screaming in that famous, racked roar; his guitar is wrenched and crunching and Mahon attacks the cymbals with soft mallets, severing any reverberation and making the beat feel fittingly impotent with frustration. Several songs appear to align the loss of Parker with a kind of earthly damnation: “When Jesus comes back all you motherfuckers can pray,” Sparhawk sings on JCMF, almost relishing the idea. But he’s defeated on the broken, Neil Young-tinged country of Torn, lamenting the dismal outcomes of situations in which you get “the same fucking answer every time”. Princess orbits the kind of classically tender refrain that made Low’s name: “So much for saving the world / Too much for our little girl,” he sings. The title of their debut album, released nearly 30 years ago, was I Could Live in Hope – a beautiful, knowingly futile sentiment that rings through these songs which crackle with looming conflict and uncomfortable truths.

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Others are piercingly direct in their desperate evocations of loss, raw and shellshocked, and often repeating single phrases that get heavier with each iteration. “Hold me,” Sparhawk pleads on the lonely, loping blues song Home 2 Me; “Go let it out,” he and Cyrus sing in harmony over billowing clouds of guitar on Get High, as if offering grace to Parker as she transcended this realm; “Don’t take your light out of me,” he sings, staggered by the prospect, on the slow, rounded Don’t Take Your Light. You imagine how it must feel for him to perform these songs without his life and musical partner by his side (and it is agonising: many in the congregation have tears pouring down their faces), but also how performing these songs together must form some part of a grieving and healing process for the family.

The last song, Want It Back, is another powerfully simple one, Sparhawk repeating the title over and over as the music shifts from crunching rock back to the frizzy wah-wah guitar they started on. (It even brings on some dancing from between the pews, not territory Low ever ventured into.) He smiles as he sings his incantation, the jazzy bookends of the show seeming to seal a sacred ritual.

This article was amended on 12 November 2023. An earlier version said that Alan Sparhawk had only performed in Duluth since the death of Mimi Parker. He had also performed in Minneapolis.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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