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The Low Anthem’s Old-Time Rock & Roll

Rhode Island trio channel CSN, Dylan with neo-hippie rock gems

Rolling Stone IN Apr 20, 2009

At McSorley’s Old Ale House, a 155-year-old pub in New York’s East Village, roots-rock trio the Low Anthem celebrate a sold-out gig with mugs of beer. “Woody Guthrie used to hang out here,” says frontman Ben Knox Miller. “He was like the first blog band. Only he was singing to the people working in the fields.”

While Miller and multi-instrumentalists Jocie Adams and Jeff Prystowsky are in their twenties, “everything we listen to is really old: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Gustav Mahler,” says Miller. “We’re not into the next big thing.” With an opening slot for Ray LaMontagne lined up, a gig at Bonnaroo this summer and A&R execs flocking to their gigs, the neo-hippie rockers are one of the East Coast’s hottest unsigned acts. “We can make a living now,” Miller says. “Not a luxurious living, but a living.”

The band’s second album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, comes in a hand-painted sleeve, and the music inside feels just as homemade: With Miller’s Springsteen-esque rasp in front, the band crafts warm-hearted Americana populated by train workers and road trippers. The group cut the album on Block Island, Rhode Island ”“ adding touches of pump organ, zither and Tibetan singing bowls ”“ over 10 days last winter. “We brought 10 friends with us,” says Miller. “It was an attempt at creating this utopia.”

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The trio met at Brown University; Prystowsky and Miller played intramural baseball together and then DJ’d the graveyard shift at a local radio station. When they started playing shows, the Low Anthem were just a duo and Jocie Adams was their biggest fan, always in the front row. But when Miller learned she could play anything from viola to trumpet, he asked her to join.

The Low Anthem still come off like hip grad students. Prystowsky passes the long rides between shows reading history books ”“ he’s currently deep into a 1947 bio of Alexander the Great and baseball legend Earl Weaver’s book on coaching strategy. Adams is a classical-music-loving nerd who once worked as a researcher at NASA (she studied photochemistry). “I guess you could say I undiscovered [the hydrocarbon] allene in Titan’s atmosphere,” she says. Miller cracks, “Can you imagine what it’s like getting her to play rock & roll?”

At their New York show, the band members still look nervous in front of a crowd. Adams’ legs shake, and she occasionally bursts into a giggle fit. Once they start playing, however, the solemnly beautiful music hushes the room. “You may have seen us earlier this year,” Miller tells the crowd. “I hope we sound much more professional to you guys now.”

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