Defying expectations and offering courageous, surprising, pure, extreme, heartfelt, and sometimes even beautiful expressions are some of the things we count on artists to do. The fact that Low was able to do them all in one 27-minute set at Rock the Garden I found remarkable. Others apparently weren’t so thrilled with the extended version of the band’s 1996 song “Do You Know How to Waltz?”: Angry tweets and blog posts appeared, and before the band had even arrived back home in Duluth, Low’s Alan Sparhawk was on the phone doing an interview about the set. (Listen to Low’s Saturday performance and tell me you can’t find dark, redemptive beauty there.) I guess the kind of riots that erupted in Paris after Stravinsky’s premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913 now happen online.
Rock and roll long ago transitioned from solely entertainment into an art form, one that often serves as a wake-up call to boot. When Low walked on stage, the deluge had just past, dark clouds were still hanging low but beginning to break, and wet straggling fans were finding their way back from the underground onto the wet field. At that moment, their decision to play an extended version of “Do You Know How to Waltz?” felt inspired–one that fit the unsettled day and our unsettled times. How does a band better create a transition from Dan Deacon’s equally memorable underground parking lot digital throw-down to what would surely be more song-based, hits-oriented, high energy music coming later in the day?
Of course, strong artistic statements inevitably spark strong counter-responses, especially when presented to large, unsuspecting audiences. To my mind, Low’s set was one of the most exciting moments in Rock the Garden history. Yes, it served as a jolt to some listeners who had expected something different. It introduced noise, distortion, and drone in an artful, low-keyed, actually rather peaceful manner — cascading, swelling layers of sound, floating electronic harmonics, and patience-inducing stoppage of time. Low chose to place themselves in the company of sonic renegades from rock’s history: Hendrix, John Cale, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Sunn O)))), Patti Smith, Sonic Youth and dozens of others, including some of today’s most popular rock artists — Neil Young, Wilco, and Radiohead, to name a few. They opened a dialogue with the avant-classical side of the aisle as well, represented by artists/musicians familiar to Walker visitors: Yves Klein, John Cage, La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Philip Glass, Yoko Ono, Rhys Chatham, even Tim Hecker. The success of Rock the Garden has for some time brought commercial and broad-based expectations of accessibility to an event never intended to exclusively carry such, certainly not with all or even most of its chosen bands.
The Walker and The Current both strive for diversity and innovation in the RTG lineup. The event grew out of a 50-year old Performing Arts program at the Walker dedicated to new sounds, new movement and new forms of theater and interdisciplinary art, where traits like innovation and audacity rank high. Equally, on the radio, The Current has helped open up the airwaves, forging a new model for public radio nationally, actively supporting independent artists from Minnesota’s strong rock scene and far beyond. While I find some of the angry, closed-minded on-line responses to Low’s set dispiriting, I remain thrilled with the debate that ensued — seeing directly what the power of art, in this instance a strongly made musical statement, can evoke. Low’s set is in line with both Rock the Garden’s roots and its ongoing efforts to champion innovators like tUnEyArDs, Yeasayer, Bon Iver (then an unknown with a brand new sound), Howler, Andrew Bird, The Bad Plus, Retribution Gospel Choir (Alan Sparhawk’s last RTG appearance), Calexico, all who performed in recent years.
Witnessing Low’s performance Saturday, I admit to my own initial confusion, which melted quickly into gratitude and then awe as the piece unfolded. So much so that when the set ended I rushed backstage to give Steve, Mimi, and Alan my thanks and my well wishes before anyone else could reach them, wanting to counter in advance any unhappiness or criticism I assumed — correctly, it turns out — was likely to follow.
Philip Bither is the Walker’s Senior Curator of Performing Arts.