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We know that rock ‘n’ roll is just as capable of ascending to the heavens as a hymn, and yet we so often confine it to bars and clubs, where it pushes against the low ceiling and, finding no escape, spreads out across the room. It reaches us yearning souls in the crowd, and we greet it, but it’s too close to really get a good look at, too confined for a thorough pondering. In the sanctuary of the United Methodist Church a few weeks back, rock ‘n’ roll laid claim to the vertical, and allowed its audience to look heavenward. The room’s vaulted heights filled with smoke and noise, and higher still its windows looked out on a gray night, become charged with a sort of turbulent drama as the bands set out toward the furthest reaches of religious—nay, spiritual—feeling in their music. The bands on the bill, Minnesota natives all, were just the right ones for this scenario, Mormon, Christian and unaffiliated alike. (Pardon this heavy introduction, but it really did feel like this!)
Retribution Gospel Choir have a tendency to oversell their achievement of nirvana (or whatever your faith calls it), but when they do achieve it (miraculously, and fairly often), they transform suddenly from drone to spectacle. The most notable occurrence of this happened when singer and guitarist Alan Sparhawk took to his guitar strings with his teeth—doing so not like an innocent citing rock ‘n’ roll’s most notorious stage antics, but like a man possessed—and Eric Pollard’s erratic drumming, freed from its plodding and from the heavy load of a tune it must carry forward, allowed the ensuing billowing eruption to find its own shape. So big! There’s not a great deal of difference between this band and Sparhawk’s other operation, the recently less prolific Duluth, MN slowcore legends Low: the chords are just as long and devout, their domain just as exalted. The difference is that Retribution Gospel Choir play loud enough (really loud) to be heard all throughout the valley, so Sparhawk accordingly plays less the part of a rakish country minister with a knowledge of sin, more so the part of a visionary (and rakish) shepherd.
Opening act Zoo Animal might be the most serious band to come out of Minnesota since Low, and they’re also one of the best. Like Retribution Gospel Choir, they could be accused of a certain redundancy, hitting the same peaks of emotional intensity song after song, but it’s so exciting to see singer and guitarist Holly Newsom (a more raucous Joanna?) hit those peaks (think of early 90s antidotes to grunge like Come and Scrawl, or the latter band’s Marcy Mays’ triumphant vocal on The Afghan Whigs’ “My Curse”) that the band proceeded through its set with an unfaltering and ragged majesty. The secret is in the buildup and the comedown—a crucial process that Retribution Gospel Choir too often ignored—from a subtle shudder (see: Tim Abramson’s smooth and melodic bass lines) to fever pitch (see: Thom Burton’s sonic boom drumming, a la “Hounds of Love”) and back again. At the end of the set, Newsom immediately rushed offstage, not meeting the audience’s eyes, her guitar squalling from the ground in her wake. It wasn’t a gimmick—she had brought her music to such a dangerously emotional place that she could only run away from it.
And starting off the night, The Starfolk’s good taste was nowhere more evident than in their choice of covers, David Bowie’s “Quicksand” and The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” both delivered with the sort of svelte modesty and attention to harmony and jangle that characterizes the band’s originals. Brian Tighe, perhaps the Twin Cities’ most notable Anglophile, going back to his work with The Hang Ups and The Owls, leads the quartet, and indeed there is such fine interplay among the members, and such nicely dramatic use of cello (courtesy of Jacqueline Ultan), that the connotation of “string quartet” is appropriate. The present iteration of Tighe’s Anglophilia lands him somewhere near the land of The Left Banke in the time of The Three O’Clock, and that’s the kind of music that gets me all fired up with religious fervor, if only because it reminds me of this world’s divinity.
Retribution Gospel Choir: