There are only about thirty or so people in the long‚ deep room. At the back there are the inevitable talkers and people playing pool. It could be any bar in any small city in America. And here's how the band handles it: They start with a "The Ballad of the Broken Bones‚" a classic Low Anthem ballad. Conversations burble in the background. Then Ben gets behind the drums and introduces "on old gospel song" called "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around." Jeff picks up and attacks his stand-up bass‚ improvising while Jocie stands in the stage light with Ben's electric guitar. Cyrus holds one long‚ breathing chord on the pump organ. Pool balls crack in the background. Then Ben kicks in on the drums and Jocie picks out a dark‚ shimmering guitar line. The pair soul-shout the song's chorus‚ and suddenly the show has a Deep South‚ doomsday-preacher-on-the-street-corner feeling that turns heads at the end of the bar. I notice a pack of hipsters walk through the door‚ checking out the stage.
"Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" wakes up the crowd and focuses them on the band. The Low Anthem then proceed to show how deftly they can navigate a set and a room‚ following pockets of acoustic calm with strutting‚ preening rock. A run of mid-set barn-burners culminates in "Cigarettes & Whiskey‚" on which Ben and Jocie scream "Cigarettes and whiskey‚ and wild‚ wild women/they'll drive you crazy‚ they'll drive you insane!" After the song crashes to a halt‚ the room is nearly silent. Ben introduces "This God Damn House" with a story about an old roommate who left them the song when he moved out. "It's often the ballad that gets everyone's attention‚" Jocie points out later. "Everyone's talking while you're rocking‚ and then they tune in." The song's elegiac harmonies and world-weary lyrics cast a spell over the room‚ a perfect moment for Ben to start whistling into the cell phones. This time‚ the effect is like a flying saucer taking off; the loop builds‚ circles around the band and the stage‚ hovers in the air‚ and suddenly spins away into the distance. Applause erupts‚ punctuated with whoops and yells from the crowd.
"It's hard to find the right venue for us‚" Jeff says. "After that first record‚ What The Crow Brings‚ we were trying to find listening rooms‚ intimate spaces‚ seated audiences. But at the time‚ we couldn't draw so much‚ so we were looking for venues that were seated‚ with a capacity of fifty‚ or maybe one hundred. And at the time our 'up' song was that Carter Family tune 'Keep on the Sunny Side.' Can you imagine?"
Early gigs were tough on the band. Once Ben and Jeff abruptly gave up. "People were talking so much‚ we just walked offstage‚" Jeff says. "And as soon as we got offstage a ton of people who obviously weren't listening came up and said‚ 'Where are you guys going? We were really enjoying that. . . .'" According to Ben‚ they all bought CDs. "That's when we learned about marketing strategies‚" he says with a laugh. "Leave 'em wanting more. . . ." I ask if those shows influenced them to write the rockers on Darwin. "Not those songs‚ necessarily‚" says Jeff. "But we definitely figured out‚ 'We should plug in an electric guitar.'"
Not everyone loves Darwin's new audio brawn. Jim Vickers‚ a writer for the Providence‚ Rhode Island‚ magazine Motif‚ wrote a 1‚300-word review of the record in which he poured out his distain for songs like "The Horizon Is a Beltway" and "Home I'll Never Be‚" describing them as "post-adolescent fits‚ leaving craftsmanship behind in favor of raging hormones." He even compared the new material to the shock and awe tactics of the Iraq war and threw in a dig about having to eat aspirin while listening to the songs. His review prompted a vigorous debate on a local Craigslist forum. Some took Vickers' side‚ others the band's. "Honestly‚ I loved getting that review‚" says Ben. "It was so awesome . . . If someone gets that fired up about a collection of your songs‚ you can't be upset about that. It's just incredible."
The Low Anthem's set at The Monkey House proves a point about the new material: It works‚ especially in context. When the band is playing live‚ it's in conversation with the crowd‚ and any engaging conversation needs depth. Listeners were entranced by the graceful acoustic tunes‚ and hollered and cheered during the increasingly feverish and dirty stomps that boiled over until Jeff's smile turned maniacal and Ben's voice was a rasping scream.
As another band takes the stage‚ new fans pull up to Jeff and Jocie's bar stools to talk and buy them drinks. Ben sits next to Brett and they talk‚ heads down so they can hear each other. Cyrus stands talking with his brother. Another night's work is done. This time the band has done what touring bands have to do to survive: They've turned strangers into fans. They're far from where they were only hours ago -- weary and nursing wounds from the previous night's show. Now they're all smiles and laughter‚ drinks and stories. Though most of the crowd is unaware of Darwin's themes‚ they've taken part in a little experiment; while some crowds select the band for failure‚ ignoring them or talking over their work‚ the band pushes on‚ working hard on that gospel of community Ben described. They're fighting for it every night. And tonight the crowd selected them for survival‚ for success. Community won.
Later‚ as I walk through the door to catch a lift home‚ I see Ben outside watching the traffic pass. I pat him on the back‚ and he turns around with a smile and says‚ "Thanks‚ man. Today was fun." I smile back and agree. He looks satisfied and energized‚ ready for the next step‚ whatever it may be. I don't know if he's thinking about survival‚ but after the day he's had‚ it can't be far from his mind. We both share a quiet moment‚ wave goodbye‚ and walk our own ways into the cool Vermont night.