What my ears want to hear

Seeking solace at the cold, dark peak of winter watching rock and roll bands at the Cedar Cultural Center. Inspired performances with technical mastery. Just the kind of music for such a winter’s night.

Katie and Lola on Lake Phalen on a winter night

At the peak of winter, when all memories of warm green days are no more real than a dream about flying on the space shuttle, when summer’s return seems as remote as the moon, you should seek rock and roll music.

On my way home this evening, a mark of the season worth discussing with a shop clerk was that you can now see your car when you go out to it at the end of the workday. February is a relief, but the night is still plenty long.

Last night, I sought solace at the Cedar Cultural Center. The show featured one of my favorite bands, Retribution Gospel Choir, and an aspirational new Twin Cities duo called Peter Wolf Crier. Both bands performed inspired sets and with technical mastery. Just the kind of music for such a winter’s night.

I drove across St. Paul and Minneapolis in fading rush hour, the light just gone from the sky. Riding shotgun was Wade, who I have spent many an evening listening to records with on his hi-fi stereo and have also seen Retribution with previously. And who has ridden shotgun in my car on similar ventures for going on 12 years.

We went to St. Louis Park to pick up Erik, who happens to be a music critic for the City Pages alternative newspaper. Erik was reviewing the show; he was also at the last Retribution Gospel Choir show Wade and I attended six months or so ago.

One wall of Erik’s living room is essentially crates of records. Hundreds of LPs. It took some looking, but he found Low’s album “The Great Destroyer” and we listened to it with a couple Summit EPAs. 

When we dropped Erik off after the show, he mentioned that while Wade and I got to return to our beds and get a good night’s sleep, he had an 8:30 a.m. deadline to meet. This is some of what he wrote in his review:

Alan Sparhawk sets the frenetic, fiery pace that band and fan alike simply must follow, and on this night at the Cedar, the show started like an experimental sonic whirlwind, with Sparhawk’s voice at first seeming a bit ragged from the road, causing him to simply focus more on his incendiary guitar work. The show started with an a cappella intro that featured Sparhawk only on vocals, before bassist Steve Garrington and drummer Eric Pollard kicked in behind him, effortlessly bridging that new track into a  lengthy intro to “Your Bird,” which absolutely soared. Without missing a beat, RGC rolled right into a volatile version of “Breaker” that simply slayed, representing the loudest I’ve ever heard anyone play in the Cedar’s intimate confines. Continue reading…

Alan Sparhawk of Retribution Gospel Choir, Cedar Cultural Center, February 3, 2011.
Alan Sparhawk of Retribution Gospel Choir (Photo by Sharyn Marrow)

Much of Sparhawk’s music seems to be about bringing order out of chaos. On stage at the Cedar, he reminded us that for such work, we must accept some chaos. The band seemed to lose control of the music at a few points in the second half of the set, but always just when it was most needed the hooks came back and Sparhawk lunged back to the microphone to rip out the song’s refrain, a memory distant like a dream.

Retribution Gospel Choir and Peter Wolf Crier had been on tour together for about a month, playing many back-to-back nights. It had been my understanding that they were playing split bills, taking turns playing first and second, and both bands playing full sets. When I saw RGC was playing first, I assumed we’d see a full set. Sadly, they only played about 40 minutes before leaving the stage for Peter Wolf Crier.

We went outside on the patio for one of our party to smoke a cigarette between bands. Another fellow who bummed a smoke struck up conversation. He was a Low fan (Sparhawk’s original and legendarily-slow and quiet band) and had not seen RGC before, but was impressed by the performance. The others on the patio were there to see Peter Wolf Crier, which has gotten a lot of play recently on The Current radio station. They were a little dismissive of the performance they had just seen.

Two other fellows came out then and they too had not much to say about the music they had just listened to, and one said, “I think most people are here to see Peter Wolf Crier,” which I took to mean he certainly was.

Peter Wolf Crier at the Cedar Cultural Center
Peter Wolf Crier (Photo by Sharyn Marrow)

I don’t begrudge Peter Wolf Crier their fans, though, and they put on a searing performance. Singer-guitarist Peter Pisano did haunting things by employing a sampler to loop his howls, singing over layers of his own voice.

I saw them play for the first time in November when they opened for Dawes at First Avenue. I didn’t really “get it.” This time I saw it all because it was all right in front of me. I agree with Erik: “Peter Wolf Crier certainly must have felt that RGC really threw down the gauntlet during their set, because they came out on fire right from the start, not wanting the intense atmosphere of the evening to waver at all.”

They showed unrestrained respect for what their opener had done, talking at numerous times about how much they had learned watching Retribution play night after night on the tour.

Retribution Gospel Choir’s drummer Eric Pollard and bassist Steve Garrington came back on stage for one song, and then later in the set, all three members of RGC came out to play a cover of Nick Drake’s song “Place to Be.”

We stuck around after the show for a while. The band stood by the stage, chatting with friends and fans, the people left in the room only those who aren’t ready for the night to be over quite yet. They were selling a nice lithograph for a mere $5 and I got a copy and all three band members signed it.

Retribution Gospel Choir lion poster

Alan Sparhawk was absent for the first several minutes; when he returned he not only signed the poster but chatted a bit. He said a couple times that he felt like the set was “indulgent” for the guys in the band. Indulgent, perhaps, but it’s how they wanted to play, and it’s what I wanted to hear.

Over at, Sarah Moeding wrote up her own impressions (despite losing her first version to a computer crash):

“Retribution Gospel Choir took the stage at the Cedar quietly, dressed in classic black. Alan Sparhawk (Low, Black Eyed Snakes), a man whose features barely deign to belie the old-timey battle between god and the devil within him…” Continue reading.

She seems to be referring to what I wrote about above: order vs. chaos, creation vs. destruction. Fighting such a battle night after night should exhaust Sparhawk and the band. They seemed to only be feeling alive. It was exhilarating to watch.

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