Retribution Gospel Choir at the Turf Club, 2/1/13
with Pony Trash and Southwire
Turf Club, St. Paul
Friday, February 1, 2013
As the years go by, it becomes more and more obvious that Alan Sparhawk is destined to have his own special place in the annals of Minnesota music. There are those who just seem to bring something extra to the table -- a Prince or a Dylan have done it on the largest scale, and to the most acclaim, whereas Sparhawk remains largely in the indie realm -- and it's hard not to feel it any time he's in the room.
Retribution Gospel Choir's album release show at the Turf Club last Friday was just one such occasion, a show that -- to borrow on an all-too-overused cliche -- was almost religious in its intensity. And Sparhawk was firmly at the center of it all.
Retribution Gospel Choir's Alan Sparhawk: We perversely replicated playing live
In fact, such a comparison didn't seem to be lost on the man himself, who made jokes throughout the set seemed to make light of the idea. "May peace flow through you," he said near the end of the show, much like a priest addressing his parishioners. But then, he added with a smirk, "Like the good drinking water of the city."
Such disjointed humor was typical of Sparhawk's between-song banter, but when it came to the music itself, he took on a far different demeanor. Seriousness wouldn't even be the right word; it was more as though as he were floating outside of himself, his eyes closed, his face -- gaunt, almost haggard in the stage lights -- contorted and wincing and dripping with sweat. And it was hard not to be drawn in.
Inevitably, the real heart of the show came with the two new songs that form Retribution's new record, 3. They showed up, back-to-back, about a third of the way into the show, and almost made the rest of the set feel like a warm-up in comparison. "Can't Walk Out," a song built around a gnarly riff that slowly ratchets itself up over 20 minutes, seemed the obvious centerpiece, with bassist Steve Garrington and drummer Eric Pollard laying down a lurching beat that Sparhawk spiraled around throughout.
Anyone with a keen eye might have noticed early in the show that Jake Hansen was standing off to the side of stage and, knowing that Hansen rarely enters a venue without getting on stage, it came as little surprise that he joined the band about halfway through "Can't Walk Out." The song had already been building for about 10 minutes, but once he joined it was blown wide open--the high-pitched squeal of Hansen's guitar providing a perfect counterpoint to Sparhawk's gravelly, distorted leads.
In contract, "Seven" initially seemed like the big, extended come down from "Can't Walk Out," but its mellow repetition gradually morphed into its own kind of intensity--haunting, insistent, and drenched in reverb. Sparhawk would repeat the same verse roughly every five minutes, a fact that each time almost wrenched you out of a daze. The simple act of repetition and simplicity was enough to make the music feel like it was shifting into the strangest and most surreal shapes.
After finishing "Seven," Sparhawk broke the tension with some more humor. "Any questions at this point?" he asked. The rest of the songs, short and sometimes poppy in comparison, provided needed relief after the focus of the two new songs, but it was hard not to conclude that the songs from 3 are the songs that Retribution were put on this earth to play.
And it was in them, too, that Sparhawk reminded us what it's like to be a cut above the rest.
Critics' Bias: Longtime Low fan, of course, but it's hard not to think of the new record as anything other than awesome.
The Crowd: A little sparse, but very into what was happening.
Overheard in the Crowd: "Radical! Radical!"
Random Notebook Dump: Pony Trash went right on before Retribution, with Sarah Rose standing in on bass for Chris Bierden. Interestingly, her being there only seemed to emphasize just how central the bass is in this band, essentially providing the melody while the guitars lay down textures. Southwire were the first opener, another band making the trek down from Duluth, and for the uninitiated they gritty folk centered around the interplay between their male and female vocalists. It's not hard seeming them go over well around here.