“modes both subtle and strangulated”

Low - C'monThe guitarist Nels Cline — of Wilco and other bands — is a guest on two tracks on the new record from Duluth band Low, “C’mon.” A reporter from Uncut, a U.K.-based music magazine, contacted Cline in the course of doing a profile about Low, and got such a verbose response that the reporter posted the whole thing on the magazine’s website.

As a piece of music criticism, the essay almost stands on its own, though at times it gets a little rambling and “purple.” But it shows Cline has been a longtime fan of Low, and confirms that the best musicians love listening to music as much as they love making it:

Since my becoming aware of Low, I have watched as Alan has started other projects, both of which seemed to address a burning need to “rock out”, to make a racket, be immersed in a mushroom cloud of rhythm and guitar, to really cut loose. I actually have sat in briefly with both The Black-Eyed Snakes and with The Retribution Gospel Choir and witnessed/felt the music, watched Alan go for it, heard his beautiful guitar sound in modes both subtle and strangulated. With records like “The Great Destroyer”, Low had surges of volume on brilliant songs like “Pissing” and “When I Go Deaf”.

I’m glad he mentioned “When I Go Deaf” (off the 2005 album “The Great Destroyer”). There are many great Low songs, but I just listened to this one again two days ago and it got me. Here’s video of Low playing the song just a few days ago at a gig in New Orleans:

I remember first reading about the song in a review of the album “The Great Destroyer” in the now-defunct Rake Magazine six years ago, and the interpretation of the lyrics has stuck with me: “‘When I Go Deaf’ … speaks frankly about a time when it will be OK not to write or sing songs, when an artist’s obligation to create has died or been beaten away,” Chris Godsey wrote.

The lyrics demand Alan Sparhawk’s voice, but they stand on their own:

When I go deaf / I won’t even mind / Yeah, I’ll be all right / I’ll be just fine. / I’ll stay out all night / Looking at the sky / I’ll still have my sight / Yeah, I’ll still have my eyes. / And we will make love / We won’t have to fight / We won’t have to speak / And we won’t have to lie. / And I’ll stop writing songs / Stop scratching out lines / I won’t have to fake / And it won’t have to rhyme.

The new Low album comes out April 12. The band released a “trailer” for the album, primarily featuring footage of them screwing around during recording at Sacred Heart Music Center in Duluth. It is yet strangely endearing and captures the Low spirit:

You can pre-order “C’mon” now (I recommend vinyl) and stream the whole thing while you wait for delivery. I did that a while ago and have listened to it several times; it really does occupy a good place in their oeuvre, somehow managing to be both new and fresh and modern, and a return to their roots. As Nels Cline wrote: “Classic Low, yet new/expanded Low. Growth!”

Low will bring “C’mon” to First Avenue’s Mainroom on April 16.


What my ears want to hear

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.


How far we’ve come

Dawes illustration from Daytrotter

Dawes, who I wrote about seeing last Friday at Taste of Minnesota, has been featured by music website Daytrotter. The four live tunes are unsurprisingly excellent, but the stream-of-consciousness essay about the band, its music, and life by Sean Moeller that accompanies the music is worth the visit alone:

“Since we first met the four men in Dawes a year and a half ago, we’ve spent a lot of time with them. We’ve spent days with them in barns, freezing all of our asses off, drinking lots of whiskey, hot apple cider and hot chocolate. We’ve seen them hop out into the yard and chase around barnyard animals, squawking and fussing to get out of the way. We’ve seen them get very little sleep and spend every waking hour singing and playing, just spilling with what they have running through them. We’ve spent a 4th of July with them, standing beneath a menacing purple-black sky full of storm clouds, rain and a couple hundred dollars worth of illegal fireworks. There have been babies in our families named after them. We’ve talked to them for hours until our throats were raw with the task and the effort, turned husky but still happy to have done it. We’ve come to love them as brothers and yet, through all of it, what still remains untouched is their ability to make us gasp with the purity of what they do and who they are as a group of musicians. Even a close friendship doesn’t dull one’s sense of awe when it comes to their debut album “North Hills,” a live show that’s absolutely a religious experience and new songs that are just as good and scarily meaningful. They never cease to make us stop and account for our own deficiencies – not in a destructive way, but in a way that forces us to be closer to ourselves and those that we tell ourselves we loved and are told that we’re loved by…”

Keep reading: Dawes: Daytrotter Session recorded Jul 8, 2010.


Peace in the valley

There’s a river running through the city
Gently reminding me what’s what.

Dawes, When You Call My Name

Dawes at Taste of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota July 2, 2010I’m heading out fishing in a short while, whenever Gabe gets here. The river is up high from a wet stretch of weeks and in fact the tornado sirens reportedly went off briefly out in Stillwater an hour ago when a fierce line of storms blew across eastern Minnesota. I swam in the St. Croix yesterday, no better way to beat the heat on such a muggy day. I want to get back in it today, though I’m afraid I may be confined to the canoe with the good beaches all underwater.

This is the first weekend in perhaps a month in which obligations have been outnumbered by unplanned hours. It was a busy June and I just need to accept it and acknowledge that the commitments were positive: a wedding in Portland, my mom’s retirement party, a successful canoe trip with journalists for work.

Katie and I took Friday afternoon off work to go to the Taste of Minnesota where we saw Retribution Gospel Choir and Dawes play. We wanted to stick around for the evening when Minneapolis hip-hop stars Atmosphere and P.O.S. were playing, but we had a sick dog that we didn’t want to leave at home too long.

The two bands we did see were worth the vacation time, the ticket price, and any effort of getting ourselves to Harriet Island. Retribution Gospel Choir (featuring Alan Sparhawk [and Steve Garrington] of Duluth band Low) was typically face-melting, as the kids say. Melody climbing out from under noise, masterful guitar work, chaos coalescing into harmony. It was an atypical venue, a tent at a family-friendly event on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. When we arrived, folk-country singer Justin Townes Earle (son of Steve Earle, named after Townes van Zandt) had recently finished, and the seats were full of middle-aged couples and others who didn’t look much like the crowd the last time we saw RGC at the Triple Rock Social Club on Minneapolis’s West Bank.

It felt strange to sit down and take in a show by a rock band like them, but I honestly couldn’t complain. We scored a couple chairs at a table and I drank my Summit EPA and enjoyed the craftsmanship–even though I’m not sure everyone else did; several folks found it not to their liking and excused themselves from the tent.

We went right up to the front for Dawes and I don’t think many people stayed sitting. The band from Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon then proceeded to defy my expectations. As most good electric alt-country-folk-rock acts do, they turned up the volume from their album recording (“North Hills”) and really put on a show. The crowd returned the favor.

The guys in the band seemed genuinely blown away by the audience reception–wild cheering and big smiles. They even played an obviously unplanned encore, which is really the only good kind of encore. We got our hands on a vinyl copy of the record afterward and shook hands with the lead singer, who enthusiastically autographed it.

If I don’t find peace in the valley
I’ve got no place else to look.

Dawes, Peace in the Valley


Bluegrass and bagels

St. Paul Farmers Market

Listening to Jazz 88’s program “Bluegrass Saturday Morning” is a weekly tradition for Katie and me. It’s often the soundtrack for coffee, breakfast, reading. The easy start to the first day of the weekend. Host Phil Nusbaum‘s pleasant voice and steady delivery is matched by his enthusiasm and deep knowledge of decades of bluegrass and Americana music.

I turned it on in the kitchen this morning when I got up and then I started the coffee. We didn’t listen long, though, because once the coffee had brewed we left the house to head down to the St. Paul Farmer’s Market; our first visit of the season.

The first stop for us at the Market is always the bagel stand, where we get bagels with egg for breakfast while we strategize our shopping. This morning, a bluegrass duo playing in a tent nearby grabbed our attention. With bagels and coffee in hand, we wove through a stand of beautiful flowers and took our positions to eat, drink and enjoy the music.

When the first song ended and the banjo player said “thanks” and introduced the next tune, we realized that he was none other than Phil Nusbaum himself! Even though Bluegrass Saturday Morning was still on the radio (it goes from 7 a.m. to noon every Saturday), I had known that it was generally pre-recorded. Nusbaum was both on the air and in-person, a critic and a creator.

He and his guitarist then played a whimsical version of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Merle Haggard’s “Wine and Roses,” and another tune or two while we stood watching. They weren’t playing anything very fast, but rather just easy-paced tunes where both instruments and the vocals could have the time they needed to really be appreciated. The combination of a seasoned banjo player (playing what appeared to be a very seasoned banjo) and a guitarist with a relaxed singing voice was perfect for the mellow, cloudy, cool morning.

When our bagels were gone, I threw a couple bucks in the open guitar case in front of them, and we wandered off to shop the market. They were taking a break when we left an hour or so later, our arms laden with flowers, flats of herbs for the garden, and other goodies. When we got in the car to drive home, Bluegrass Saturday Morning was still on the air and Nusbaum was narrating a review of bass and baritone singing in bluegrass music.