Jumping Off a Cliff and Landing on Your Feet: Retribution Gospel Choir, December 31 at RIBCO Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 22 December 2010 05:47

Retribution Gospel Choir. Photo by Chelsea Morgan.When I interviewed Alan Sparhawk in 2007, the singer/songwriter/guitarist touched on the idea of a “golden moment ... when you’re sort of just struggling with some instrument and you sort of have just figured it out, and you are just figuring out the first possible ideas and melodies on it; it’s really exciting.”

He was talking specifically about Low’s Drums & Guns, in which the Minnesota trio (featuring Sparhawk, his wife Mimi Parker on drums, and bassist Matt Livingston – who has since left the band) experimented with instruments they weren’t comfortable playing.

In an interview last week promoting Retribution Gospel Choir’s December 31 performance at RIBCO (supporting the Meat Puppets), that concept re-emerged in slightly different form. He cast it as freedom – but it’s critical to understand that it isn’t a natural state of being but the result of work and getting rid of ego. “Those are everything,” he said. “‘There was a moment where I was not in the way.’”

There are obvious differences between the two bands. Sparhawk noted that Low – with its signature slow tempos – is about restraint, while the cacophonous Retribution Gospel Choir is “very much about letting go.” Those milestone moments, he said, are “a little more physical, a little more cathartic” in Retribution Gospel Choir.

But “each approach can create that moment of pure freedom,” he said. “The work and what goes into getting to those points is different, but in many ways they’re both the same moment. ... There’s something very, very free going on that only could have been done because of what everybody put into it – ... what they know and how much time they’ve played, and then just the heart that goes into letting yourself be that free. ... It’s like jumping off a cliff and landing on your feet.”

And there’s risk inherent in that process. “Over the years I’ve learned that the best things I’ve done have been when I’m a little off-balance, when I don’t really know quite what I’m doing,” Sparhawk said. “I find myself more excited and challenged when it’s something that my gut tells me I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Retribution Gospel Choir features current Low bassist Steve Garrington and drummer Eric Pollard, and it’s often as big and loud as Low can be small and quiet.

The band’s second album (titled simply 2 and released early this year) covers a lot of territory, from the sprightly good-time rock of “Workin’ Hard” to the bright classic-rock riffs of “White Wolf” to the elegiac and patient “Bless Us All.”

But the three intense minutes of “Your Bird” – one of my favorite songs of 2010 – are an effective summation of the band’s “letting go,” and Sparhawk pointed to a drum fill that leads the band back into the chorus as one of those thrilling markers. “It’s hidden in there, but there’s some really, completely free moments in that song.”

And the relatively epic “Poor Man’s Daughter” continually builds and releases, affording the band plenty of opportunities to improvise and re-discover those nuggets.

Retribution Gospel Choir has put out two records since Sparhawk’s other band last released a studio album, and both 2007’s Drums & Guns and 2005’s The Great Destroyer were stark departures for Low. But fans of his long-running outfit needn’t be worried that he’s abandoned his seminal band or its hallmarks. Low has remained active over the past three years and has just finished a new record, C’mon – which will likely be released in April, Sparhawk said. His description makes that forthcoming album sound like a refinement of classic Low.

While the last two Low records had “a little more tension, a little bit more surface noise,” he said, “this one is pretty. Or more beautiful ... . Right now we’re sort of focused on vocals and songs, and kind of get out of the way of them. Let the song be what it needs to be, and ... not even [let] quaint imperfections get in the way. ... We worked very hard to get everything right. In past records, we’ve allowed ourselves to work within the limits of the time and the budget we have, the limits of what we can do and what we can’t do.”

But on C’mon, he said, there’s no “we’re doing the best we can here” apology: “Part of getting your ego out of the way is making sure something is done right ... instead of just falling back on your imperfections.”

Retribution Gospel Choir will perform on Friday, December 31, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island) with headliners the Meat Puppets. The show starts at 8 p.m., and the bill also includes Driver of the Year and Los Yegueros. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 the day of the show, and available at RIBCO.com.

For a 2009 cover story on the Meat Puppets, visit RCReader.com/y/puppets.

For a 2007 interview with Alan Sparhawk about Low, visit RCReader.com/y/low.

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