Low's song Do You Know How to Waltz is a nearly fifteen minute endeavor that brings to a close their 1996 album The Curtain Hits the Cast. Vocals are sparse, one verse about death, the rest is instrumental. The song is dark and foreboding. It sonically swells from almost nothing to a point where you swear it is moments away from erupting only to dim down again. It is gloomy, and yes beautiful. The kind of thing you listen to by yourself in a dark room when you feel like everything in your life is going wrong. In fact, Do You Know How to Waltz may be the perfect song for the poor soul one step away from putting a bullet through their own brain. It is not an appropriate rendition for a crowd of more than ten thousand at an outdoor music festival!
Now, Low didn't open their set with Do You Know How to Waltz. They also didn't close with it. Either of which could conceivably be reasonable choices in the right venue. In an act of pretentiousness unrivaled by any band, large or small, that I have ever seen, the single song was their set! A twenty seven minute version with the already nascent lyrics removed. When they stopped playing, band member Alan Sparhawk stepped to the mic and said, with a voice that came across the speakers as almost a soft mumble, “drone, not drones.” With that, Low walked off stage and the event crew started the change over for the next band.
At the event, there were a few boos, but the feeling of the crowd was predominantly one of bewilderment. Did what just happened really just happen? One gentleman actually asked me ”Was that Low?” as though, perhaps, because of the rain that forced the previous artist to play inside a parking garage, it may have been the worlds longest sound check. Many took to Twitter to express their disappointment. However, after the event, several music journalists and bloggers have defended the band.
Reed Fischer of CityPages GimmeNoise blog went so far as to say “Low's performance was one of the best things to ever grace Rock the Garden.” Some of the defenses of this performance have simply been a defense of a political opinion and that if a band wants to make a political point well we shouldn't complain. A few others postulated that it was a show for true fans and too bad if no one else liked it. The majority of the defenses though seem to basically boil down to an something akin to “What they did was art, and if you don't appreciate it you are just a simple country rube.”
“But it's art! You just don't get it.” Actually it is the band that didn't get it. First and foremost, before any other criticism, this was not a song that you play in front of 10,000 people outdoors because even under the most ideal circumstances it was going to suck. This is a song you preferably listen to alone, somewhere dark and above all quiet. That way you can appreciate the moodiness and character of the song. The song does build, but the majority is played at very subdued levels. You know what isn't quiet? That's right a large outdoor music festival! It would be hard enough to get anything near an acceptable acoustic profile for 2,000 hardcore Low fans who really wanted to hear Do You Know How to Waltz and were trying to be silent. Outside, near busy streets, various venders, and ten thousand people, zero chance. There is no way even a dedicated fan could really appreciate the sonic characteristics of the performance because of all the background noise. The fact that this simply didn't, and couldn't, sound good is sin number one. It is embarrassing for the band because it is something that anyone who has ever attended a music festival would know. No person walked out of that performance with a new appreciation for ambiance and minimalist music. Not because they are bumpkins who hate art, but because it was acoustically abysmal. If art really was the goal, it would be like asking someone new to appreciate a painting while making them wear cloudy strong prescription eyeglasses.
To me though the technical reasons why as an art project it was doomed from the beginning don't address the more important issue, the massive pretentiousness of what they did.
Sparhawk was quoted in the Star Tribune as saying “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.” The hubris behind that statement is astonishing. Bands, especially ones that have been around a long while and have changed their sound over time, have to struggle with what to play at live shows. It is a delicate balancing act between playing new material, pulling older deep cuts out of the library, and just getting up and playing the greatest hits. Low wasn't a headliner, they were second out of five acts. That gives you some ability to play around a bit for sure, but it also means most people aren't there to see you. While there were undoubtedly plenty of long time fans of the band, it is pretty safe to say the fast majority of the audience had only a cursory knowledge of the band. A few songs that are played on the Current or perhaps a sample of songs on Spotify. Despite what may have been a take away from Saturday, Low actually has lyrics in their songs and they sound not at all out of place with quasi-mainstream indi rock. Telling an unfamiliar audience that you are going to going to explore some ambient sounds before launching into Waltz would have done at least something to show a bit of respect for the paying concert goers. If they really wanted to put on a show the audience wanted to see yet still push boundaries they could have played a song or two engaging the audience and then playing say an album length version of Waltz. That may have even gone over well. Low didn't do any of that. They didn't show one once of regard for the audience. They were silent as they went up, did there thing, and then quit. There is simply zero excuse for treating an audience like that.
So was it all a big political statement? If we should value the political rantings of musicians may be up for debate by the public at large, but as a general rule I am quite supportive of it even when I disagree with what they are saying. If the entire point was a political statement I can't think of anything landing flatter than what Low did. Was it even a political statement? Most of the crowd certainly didn't know. “Drone, not drones” was spoken so softly that it was barley intelligible to me and I was less than 1/3 of the way back in the crowd. I doubt most people even knew what was said. Further, it wasn't even clear right away that Sparhawk wasn't just responding to someone up front calling the band a bunch of drones. Sparhawk later clarified to the Star Tribune that “I got it off a friend’s bumper-sticker, and thought it was fitting.” If he actually took to the mic and rallied against the drone program before or after a song it is likely that the majority of the crowd would have agreed and cheered. Especially if he left out the part about Obama following the lead of GW Bush. If you want to see a band make a political statement and get a crowd going just go to YouTube and watch some Rage Against the Machine live. You may not agree with RATM, but you at least know what they are pissed off at and why. Oh by the way, they actually engage the crowd and try to rock their collective behinds off while they are at it. Neither of which can be said of Low.
The most fortunate thing about Rock the Garden 2013 was that I was able to see Dan Deacon put on the show of a lifetime playing the parking garage. If not for that, my biggest memory would be of Low giving a 27 minute middle finger to a paying audience.