Last Friday night, I’m at the Redstar Lounge in Duluth to see Retribution Gospel Choir play. Duluth poet, Peter Pain, is on stage performing his spoken word poetry and getting hassled by a drunken meathead who barged the stage trying to usurp the microphone.
Five feet away from me, standing alone in a shadow beside the stage, is Retribution Gospel Choir’s frontman, Alan Sparhawk and just like every time I see him around town, I’m frozen in place. I get a jolt, like I’m supposed to do something. I struggle internally for something to say, but nothing ever comes. I still get starstruck by Alan Sparhawk.
For those that don’t know, Sparhawk is a Duluth music legend, and the main man behind the world famous band Low.
Retribution Gospel Choir (RGC) played two shows at the Redstar Lounge last Friday and Saturday night before taking to the skies on Sunday for their mini-tour through Spain. RGC will round out the end of October with nine shows before they put on their Low hats, for Low’s tour through the rest of Europe.
I’ve elevated them in my mind; I see them as being as important to me as Nirvana, or the Pixies - two bands that have shaped my mental landscape.
I guess I’ve never actually gotten over the fact that I live in the same town as these people. It’s something that strikes me every time I see someone from Low, or RGC, out on the scene.
I grew up on the Iron Range of Minnesota, five miles outside of Hibbing, in a small town called Keewatin. There was no music scene in Keewatin. There wasn’t anything in Keewatin. A whole 900 people called that place home.
In those days, Duluth compared to Keewatin might as well have been New York City, or Chicago.
My auntie used to work at a Sam Goody store, and she was always giving my sister and me stacks of promotional CDs that were most likely bound for the trash. Sifting through the Ginuwine and Kid Rock singles, I would usually find some good stuff in those stacks. One in particular was a 2005 Sub Pop compilation CD.
The CD featured a song by Low, which I soon found through reading the booklet was a band from Duluth. The song was “California” off of their 2005 album “The Great Destroyer.” I was shocked by this revelation. “Holy shit. There’s a Sub Pop band in Duluth? How did I not know this?”
Flash-forward a few years: it’s 2007, and high speed internet is a thing that changed the entire world. Things like Myspace connected music scenes across the globe. That’s when I started paying more attention to the stuff coming out of Duluth. I obtained a copy of “The Great Destroyer,” and I was enthralled. I was so obsessed with the first three songs, I can’t remember listening to much past them.
Duluth still seemed like a big place. I figured running into Sparhawk in Duluth would be as likely to happen as bumping into Prince in Minneapolis.
To make things more interesting, Greg Norton from Husker Du was also there, which totally freaked me out. Norton joined Sparhawk and the Meat Puppets on stage for a psychedelic freak-out jam, and my little brain imploded under the pressure of seeing too many musical heroes at once.
After all the madness of that night, it was the RGC performance that stuck with me. Their constant intensity really shook me. They quickly became one of my all-time, favorite bands, and they remain there to this day.
I spent a lot of time sitting at a computer on the Iron Range, watching RGC and Low videos on Youtube, and not really considering the fact that they live nearby. At that point in time, they were no more than faces on a screen, no different than the Pixies, or Dinosaur Jr.
Flash-forward again a couple of years: I now live in Duluth, and it doesn’t seem so big anymore. It actually feels really, really small.
I’ve always wondered what I would say to Kim Deal from the Pixies if I ever crossed paths with her. What would I say to J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., if I ever bumped into him at a record store? These questions don’t have clear answers, because the likelihood of that happening are fairly remote, so I’m not making any solid plans.
What I didn’t prepare for, and what I’ve never fully come to terms with, is what I’d say if I ran into Alan Sparhawk in Duluth, something that I really didn’t think would happen that much.
If I ever do run into Kim Deal, it’ll probably just be the one time. I’ll probably just stay quiet, watch her pass, and be on my way.
I see Sparhawk all the time, and I react the same way every time. I freeze. I stew over the urge to do something, say hi, or high-five, but I don't.
He’s not Justin Bieber; I’m not a fifteen-year-old girl. I know he’s just a regular guy. I know he's a nice guy who probably wouldn't mind a simple "Hey, man, love your stuff."
I think this has more to do with the work Sparhawk has created, and the effect it’s had on me. For years before moving to Duluth, Sparhawk, Low, and RGC were rock and roll stars in my mind. I forgot that we're practically neighbors.
Photos by Graham Hakala