Keep on Movin’: Pilgrims Progress: The Low Cards’ latest is a huge accomplishment

The Low Cards’ High Brow Blues

Providence’s The Low Cards are back with their second album, The Pilgrim’s Wake, an expertly crafted odyssey down their own spiral staircase of melancholy. Thematically ambitious and rewarding of multiple listens, it goes above and beyond what they accomplished with their self-titled debut.

Grasping for categorization, the blues comes to mind first, but it’s definitely not like Duke Robillard’s bar blues, and it goes way beyond the polished Black Keys sound. The Low Cards mix the moody noir of the Nick Cave and Bad Seeds, the fingerpicked grit of traditional Delta Blues, and a kind of menacing rockabilly into a novel sound that makes three chords seem like a revelation.

“Down from the Mountain” is a slogging tune with an infectious, driving rhythm and “Pal” features a great marching snare drum and one of many smoking instrumental breakdowns on the record. Live, you’ll probably be blown away by frontman Dan Baker’s masterful guitar playing, but there’s way more to The Low Cards than the shredding. Throughout The Pilgrim’s Wake, short instrumental interludes illustrate the Pilgrim’s journey, giving it the feeling of a loose concept album. “The Pilgrim” features relentless guitar set to a march, and “The Journey” is like a spaghetti western evoking a trek through the desert. 

Baker capably handles traditional whiskey-soaked sob stories on country tunes like “What am I Doing Here,” featuring an epic, organ-backed guitar solo that sounds like a supreme being rising up into the sky. Recorded at Machines with Magnets in Pawtucket, The Pilgrim’s Wake adds keyboards, pedal steel guitar and even the occasional strings without losing the essential jagged edges. Everything is boosted by excellent stand-up bass from Brian Jablonski and drums from Matt Slobogan.

The standout track is “Wolves,” the type of moody ballad that they do just as well as the foot-stomping stuff. This tune, about wolves waiting to eat you, features ethereal background vocals from MorganEve Swain and a moody instrumental outro from the string section that will rip you to shreds, emotionally speaking. The result is beautifully morose and macabre, creating a feeling of something inevitable just beneath the surface. 

As with the previous Low Cards effort, Baker does have death generally on the mind and continues to mine his own heart of darkness as it follows the Pilgrim’s journey to his own death. Kingdom gets topical (“All your thoughts and prayers are all black holes”), and “Emily” spins a yarn of a barroom murder. 

The Pilgrim may be dead and gone, but the Low Cards are coming alive. I’ve listened to it for a week straight to write this, but this is one that will be in the rotation all year.

Pilgrim’s Wake is available for purchase at: thelowcards.com. You can catch them Fri, Aug 16 at The Stomping Ground in Putnam, Conn.

The RIght Profile — The Columbus Cooperative’s Shawn Schillberg

For another edition of my series profiling people involved in the RI music biz, I headed to the West End to the Columbus Theatre on Broadway. Beyond the jokes about the Columbus formerly screening pornos, it’s turned into anything but a punchline, just this year hosting the likes of Kurt Vile, Mike Birbiglia and Better Oblivion Community Center. It’s easily one of my favorite venues, and they’re always pushing to put something different on stage.

Some personal highlights for me at the Columbus have included Neko Case, Andrew Bird and the monthly WHEM Horse Eyed Men monthly showcases. The Columbus has recently expanded into comedy, live podcasts and, coming full circle, more film screenings.

I recently sat down with Columbus Cooperative’s Sean Schillberg, coincidentally just after he had finished putting up the marquee letters for the Motif Theater Awards.

Jake Bissaro: Where did your interest in music start and how did you get into the scene here?

Sean Schillberg: I’m from the suburbs in Mass, and I started going to tons of shows in Providence as soon as I could drive. I also worked at a short-lived radio station here, and eventually starting throwing house shows at my place, which is how I ended up getting connected with the scene. I worked the very first Revival show here in November 2012, and I just sort of never really left. 

JB: Is the history of the place a part of what drew you in? 

SS: Definitely – I recently sat with the owner, Jon Berberian, and he told me some great stories. In the mid-60s, The Columbus was mostly doing fourth-run Hollywood films, but a projectionist convinced Jon to start showing this risqué Danish movie. No one was showing it at the time, but it turned out to be very popular. Unfortunately, he had to pull it because he was contractually obligated to show James Bond Goldfinger, so he decided ‘never again’ and made the smaller theater at the top of the balcony so they could screen both.

JB: How do you decide the programming?

SS: Historically the programming has been in large part curated by staff, and we’ve had a lot of great volunteers over the years. Part of our mission is to highlight bands that wouldn’t have a space somewhere else: female-fronted bands, music from every background we can think of, as diverse a calendar as we can. In the early days we were pigeonholed into the folk scene, and it’s still a huge part of what we do, but now we host noise, hip-hop, comedy, movie screenings and other stuff.

JB: What are some of your day-to-day duties?

SS: We have a full-time production manager and we just hired a house manager, but other that, it’s just three of us [including Vida Ruiz and Tom Weyman] who run things here, so there’s a huge range of responsibilities. Promotions was my background so I do a lot of that – changing the marquee, getting posters made – but it’s also picking up bands, getting more supplies for the bar and less exciting jobs like cleaning the bathrooms at the end of the night. 

JB: What are the biggest challenges to running a venue like the Columbus?

SS: When you’re running a 100-year-old building, things always need fixing. Once the shows start, things are pretty automatic, but getting 800 people who are drinking settled in their seats can definitely be a challenge. In regard to programming, we’re always trying to wrack our brains and see what we could be missing out on.

JB: What do you think of the space that the Columbus occupies in the community? Do you think it fills some kind of void that existed?

SS: I definitely think there was a need for a fully seated, intimate room as well as a fully seated large room. We have PPAC and The Vets, but those are much bigger. The small theater is also possibly the most versatile room in the area; you can show a movie one night and a rock show the next.

JB: When you started this, did you expect to be hosting sold-out Mountain Goats shows?

SS: When the first group started this, it wasn’t even really meant to be a recurring thing, just a place to book sporadic shows. As we started to hold successful shows, the word got around to the agents and managers who represent other bands. Some of our early big successes were Iron and Wine, Wanda Jackson and Fred Armisen, and those sort of started the ball rolling. Now the same process is starting for us with booking comedy acts.

JB: It sounds like it’s all happened pretty organically.

SS: Bands like And the Kids and Screaming Females just played a one-off show here that went really well, became house friends overnight, and keep coming back. Same idea with bigger acts like Kurt Vile and Sharon Van Etten. I think that’s one of the most tangible ways to know that we’re on the right track, when bands keep coming back. We just strive to be the best stop on everybody’s tour. 

Upcoming events at the Columbus include Surfer Blood (Aug 27), Michael Ian Black (Oct 5), and Jenny Lewis (Nov 3).

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