When Duluth, Minnesota's Retribution Gospel Choir last came to St. Louis -- as the opener for Wilco's three-night stand at the Pageant in 2008 -- the big stage swallowed its elasticized guitar textures and glacial tempos. Last night's show at the Firebird, however, was another story. With a fantastic new album, 2, under its belt, RGC mesmerized a devoted audience with a powerful (and all-too-brief) set of stoner-rock catharsis after a glam confessional.
The band performed most of 2, which is far noisier and structured than its self-titled debut. More than anything, RGC is the sonic equivalent of cabin fever. The crisp riffs of "Workin' Hard" conjure Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," while the brisk, upbeat "White Wolf" sounds like a lost classic-rock radio gem and "Your Bird" pushed forward like a fuzzed-out marching band out for blood. Sonic touchstones include Black Mountain or Black Sabbath. Most often, though, RGC resembled a punk-universe version of Neil Young, thanks to hurricane-level volumes of raw, ragged guitars. "Hide It Away" was especially howling and searing -- the type of song which can shift your perspective, it's so emotionally pointed.
Vocalist/guitarist Alan Sparhawk, who's also in the slo-core act Low, contorted his face and body like a stop-action puppet while performing. (Think Johnny Rotten rendered in Muppet form.) The RGC show wasn't just a run-through of songs; his all-encompassing, spasmodic physical reaction to the music reinforced the idea that this project draws from a darker, primal place. Bassist (and Sparhawk's Low bandmate) Steve Garrington matched Sparhawk's engagement with the tunes, while sparkplug, ferocious drummer Eric Pollard bashed out rhythms and added the occasional harmonic drone.
When compared with Low, RGC isn't quite as serious or haunting. Sparhawk joked with the crowd that they were a new band, and asked what they could do to improve. And before "Poor Man's Daughter," Sparhawk asked if there were any farmers in the crowd. "This song is for farmers," he said, "or your mom." (That was just the first "your mom" joke of the set, for the record.) Still, this jocularity didn't detract from the intensity: "Daughter" ended in squall after squall of noise, aggression and improvisation, with each band member coaxing sounds out of their instruments; Sparhawk even played guitar with his teeth.