We all cut our teeth somewhere. Sufjan Stevens and Ryan Adams
may call New York home, but you won’t see them at the Sidewalk Café.
Talented as these artists may be, they paid their dues in smaller scenes and
then flew into JFK with their fame armed and ready. For those who choose to
start from scratch in the vast ocean of New York City talent, it’s a whole
different ballgame. Interpol played the Luna Lounge to their girlfriends like
everyone else. Jaymay stood in line at the Antihoot and took her number from
Lach. Songwriter Alex Lowry also falls into this latter category. His story
can be found in the lyrics to a song called "Traveler": Lowry was
27, living in Kansas City, bored with his music, playing Russian roulette with
the rock’n’roll lifestyle and ready to get out of town. Upon arriving
in the big apple, he played every open mic (he even ran one of his own for a
while). 5 years into his spiritual rebirth as a folk-rock troubadour, this brilliant
songsmith has a band with his name on it, touring behind a full-length CD entitled
"Awful Joy." Many of his peers placed the record in their Top 10 of
2005, and some even wanted to list it in 2006 for good measure. It’s that
amazing. The studio effort is now accompanied by a new release, "Live in
Atlanta," which was recorded during the Lowry’s gargantuan 2005-2006
Lowry was born into a musical family, but his father’s
folk background didn’t rub off at first. "Who the fuck is Bob Dylan?"
is how he describes the way used to feel about that legend. That was
years ago, and his mother spurred the young writer’s change of heart.
She encouraged Lowry to give "Time Out of Mind" another chance after
his initial recoil. 10 spins later, the brilliance of the record finally got
to him. "He was using repetition to put people into a trance…"
exclaims the current devotee, "…and using motifs like that is what
we’ve tried to do in [this band]." As "Live in Atlanta"
shows, the band’s sound is often trance-like and always epic in scope.
Chord progressions avoid formulaic tendencies and choruses make their appearances
unpredictably, sometimes holding off until the minute 5 coda (Lowry chuckles
at the bands recent evolution: "We’ve gotten the newer songs down
to under 3 minutes"). Soaring on top of it all is Lowry’s voice,
with its heavy, mid-western drawl suggesting both Neil Young and Bob Dylan (or
what J Mascis would sound like it he put forth some effort). The words are rich
with vivid imagery, but the quirky lyrical choices are blanketed under a thoughtful,
cohesive tone: liquor, fish sticks, hobbits, karate fighters all sit together
under weather-beaten willow trees.
The current band lineup consists of Lowry on guitar and lead
vocals, Crash on drums, Shawn Setaro on bass, guitarist Casey Spindler, Nicolas
Webber on keys, and Heidi Sidelinker backing vocals/percussion. Previous incarnations
have served mostly to reproduce the lush sound of "Awful Joy" onstage.
Impressive as these lineups were, the current band is a different beast altogether,
operating on a whole new level. The band leader has relinquished more control
of the arrangements to the other members, allowing the songs to evolve and transcend
their original form into something much more potent. Few New York City acts
are able to reach E Street Band levels of execution and spiritual intensity.
Lowry hits this target consistently, offering up one of the strongest live performances
you can find in the city.
A standout song is "One Thing." It captures everything
that is wonderful about this band’s live show: the powerful singing, the
elevated arrangements, the patiently ambitious build-up, and the cascading,
Bittan-esque piano lines. More importantly, however, "One Thing" holds
the key to understanding the humble message Lowry has for his audience. The
band sounds godlike during the final crescendo, but they never want the listener
to forget how the grandest of goals begin with a dream, a decision, and perseverance.
In the final seconds of the song, the band pulls back to let this parting message
through: "You can go there. You can go anywhere if you try." In a
city full of great bands with plastic souls, Lowry reaches out to the audience,
exhibiting unparalleled sincerity and relevance; this is hopeful, healing, spiritual
music. And it rocks the hell out of you, too.
Deli: So, like all of us you want to make some money
off you music. You’re a father, which makes it even more important. Hypothetically
speaking, if a company wanted to use a poppy song like "What You’ve
Got" to sell a product, would you take the money?
I’d probably take the money and laugh all the way to
the bank. They want to use the song, fine, but that’s not what the song
is about…unfortunately, getting radio royalties just isn’t a reality
any more. You utilize some of those other avenues to get your music out there.
At the end of the day I can stand up in front of everyone and say, "Look
this is what paid my child support last month. And you know what? That song
is not about Volkswagens, it’s about [refusing] heroin." If they
want to put a clause in the contract that says I can’t talk about what
the song is about, that’s fine. (smiles) They can pay me quadruple
and I’ll just snicker.
Deli: So on purely artistic grounds...
There are a lot of other things to consider…you need
to track at the end of the day are you affecting something that’s bad.
I’m going to be playing a guitar when I’m sixty and I need to carry
the weight of each decision I make along the line. I care about three things:
the music, that my band is happy and that my audience is happy. If Lowry is
asked to put music in a movie, we’ll want to see a script. You are going
to be attached to that movie forever. You are going to be attached to that commercial
Deli: All the musicians I know seem to fall into two
camps: people who give music the college try and people who will never stop
making art. They couldn’t turn it off if they tried.
Precisely…you can call it succumbing to a curse or you
can call it the best blessing you’ve ever gotten. With me, I couldn’t
turn it off either and never tried. So [playing this music] became something
the band had to do…I grew up with my father, who was a folk musician.
I had music growing up in the house. I didn’t touch a guitar until I was
14, but I had an insider’s view, a sense of melody, listening to my family’s
record collection…I tried to take music theory in college. That’s
just not the way I am. There are people who learn that way and then there’s
the other side. I stuck my ear up to the radio.
Lowry is currently drumming up the finances for a new studio
album. Given their touring tendencies, local shows are often several months
apart. Don’t miss the next one!