Retribution Gospel Choir @ Hideout, Chicago 2/19/10
The band Retribution Gospel Choir is certainly more complex than any single word description, but amidst their live performance before a sold out crowd at the Hideout in Chicago, it did seem possible to break it down to one essential word, “intense.”
The band is fronted by lead singer Alan Sparhawk and anyone familiar with his work knows, intensity is no stranger in his music. Sparhawk is best known for his work with the band Low, which he co-fronts alongside his wife, but where Low is a masterful experiment in sparse, understated, controlled intensity, Retribution Gospel Choir is an assault.
Straight from the opening notes of “Breaker,” a song originally recorded by Low but reworked to suit the band, they wasted little time in exercising their brash musical style. Working in a manner, not so much quick as effective, the band jumped from one song to the next with as little fanfare as possible. In the quick, yet dense, set they doled out songs from both of their studio albums to date, their most recent release simply titled 2,out on Subpop. Tracks such as “What She Turned Into,” from the first record, and “Hide it Away” with its pulsating, hypnotic hi-hat rolls, stood out during the night. But, the zenith of the show was found purely in the performance. Truth be told, if there is a flaw it is found in some of the songs themselves. On record, some of the tracks are prone to falling rather flat and forgettable. Even so, all is forgiven the moment they take the songs to the stage. The energy put behind the music on stage delivers the songs anew and renders any opinion you held of the music prior to seeing it live appear uninformed.
In watching Sparhawk perform, it is not entirely clear if he is summoning greater powers or exorcising them, but there is a battle being waged with each guitar solo. Of course, Sparhawk does not carry the show alone. He is backed by fellow Low band mate, Matt Livingston, on bass and Eric Pollard, who delivers a powerful stage presence in his own right, from behind the drum kit. Together, the three are so keyed in on their musical objective it almost makes any audience at all unnecessary.
Retribution Gospel Choir appears to work for Alan Sparhawk much in the manner Crazy Horse did for Neil Young; it’s a chance to open up the gates, or perhaps more appropriately, turn up the volume. Its not just here where the comparison fits though, the band’s music draws heavily from the late 60’s & 70’s style rock of Neil Young & the Horse and many others. The kind of music that manages to feel direct even while it is meandering. But most of all, the performance seems to hold that same sense of sincerity and integrity behind the music as the aforementioned predecessor and that ends up being their most appealing quality.