Their van hadn’t even made it back to Duluth on Saturday night, and Alan Sparhawk was already well aware of the high amount of speculation, confusion, anger and/or admiration he and his Low bandmates caused with their highly unusual set that afternoon at Rock the Garden.
“We weren’t really trying to do anything ‘punk’ or pull one over on people,” Sparhawk insisted, talking by cell from his van just after the concert wrapped at 10 p.m. Adding one of several lighthearted comments on the matter, he said, “We tried but couldn’t get Prince to come out and play guitar on ‘On My Own,’ so we came up with other plans.”
Playing to possibly their biggest crowd ever in Minnesota, the trio churned out possibly their most divisive and daring set ever Saturday. As is recounted in the review from the concert -- and reflected in the reader comments underneath -- they played a sparse, slow, droning, extended version of their already sparse, slow and lengthy 1996 tune “Do You Know How to Waltz?,” stretching it to almost 30 minutes with long, echoy hums and dissonant guitar noise here and there. That was it. That was their set.
Sparhawk punctuated the performance by blurting out at the end, “Drone, not drones,” referring to -- for the people who need it spelled out -- drone music and the unmanned mini-airplanes (drones) that have been known to drop bombs on innocent victims alongside enemy targets in Middle East military campaigns. The band’s frontman insists the set wasn’t any kind of subversive act, however.
“It was a combo of things,” he explained, recounting how the heavy rain factored into their decision to play it that way, as did the fact that opener Dan Deacon had moved his performance into the garage. “It was just kind of a weird atmosphere, people coming in during the rain, not really knowing where to go. And then we found out our set had to be a little shorter than planned, to get the schedule on track. So we decided to try to do something beautiful.”
Reaction to the set on Twitter was mostly ugly. Backstage, Current staffers marveled over the fact that the entire half-hour droneathon had been broadcast live on the air (as was every RTG set), no doubt baffling a good portion of the listening audience. The Current’s program director Jim McGuinn declined to comment. Watching from the wings, Twin Cities music vet John Munson only offered a one-word reaction when asked: “Wow.” Silversun Pickups frontman Brian Aubert even stopped to comment later during his band's set: "Low is insane," he said, while noting his love of the band.
Sparhawk offered a little more context: “How many times have a lot of the people there seen us perform?” he asked (indeed, the band did just play a conventional concert for Current listeners back in March at the Fitzgerald Theater, soon after its latest album “The Invisible Way” came out).
“It was a big show, so we wanted to do something big and different. If I was there in the audience, that’s the kind of think I’d like to see a band do.”
As for the “drone, not drones” comment, Sparhawk had this simple explanation: “I got it off a friend’s bumper-sticker, and thought it was fitting.”
Saturday's showing was possibly a fitting precursor to Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, a three-day event heavy with experimental music, where Low’s Chicago pals invited them to perform this upcoming weekend in Massachusetts.