What do artists owe you?

Low at Rock the Garden MPR Photo / Nate Ryan

Saturday’s Rock the Garden concert at the Walker Art Center has raised an old question: What do musical artists owe an audience other than what they consider their art to be?

In matters of rock music, the question goes as far back as 1965, when Bob Dylan went electric at Newport. The crowd hated it.

On Saturday the band, Low, played a single 27-minute song in a festival atmosphere, to questionable reviews, reminiscent of the reaction to Dylan in pre-Twitter days

As The Current’s Andrea Swensson wrote on her Local Blog

As folks settled into their places on the grassy (and wood-chip-covered) hill and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, Low launched into their song “Do You Know How to Waltz?” and never let up, transitioning the song into one long, slow-burning instrumental build that lasted all the way up until the end of their set time. At one point, sinister sounds started seeping out of Alan Sparhawk’s guitar and it almost sounded like someone was laughing, slowly and evilly, but other than that it was an unmovable wall of noise.

The band barely looked up at the crowd, mostly staring at each other and at the ground and sky, and barely said a word, save for the very end of the “set.” When the music came to its sudden end, Alan Sparhawk stepped up to his mic and slowly, loudly said, “Drone. Not drones.”

How very artsy, apparently.

The Star Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider called the music “divisive,” but didn’t explain exactly how other than the Twitterverse didn’t agree. But the Twitterverse rarely does. He offered an explanation from band leader Alan Sparhawk.

“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.”

Which brings us back to the original question. What more did the band owe the audience, if anything?

“The aspect that isn’t mentioned is that low played right as the storm parted and the sun shone,” a Twitter pal, @anyquist, pointed out to me this morning. “So it appeared to me, at least, to be a huge disconnect between the droning on stage and the sun-fueled crowd anticipation.”

But back on The Current’s blog, reader Matthew St-German found the set to be wholly consistent with the locale…

How shocking, a band playing an experimental song (off one of their first albums, no less) at an art gallery’s festival. Do You Know How To Waltz? is one of my favorite, all-time Low tracks. That they played this for you was an honor. The litany of complaints are likely coming from a whole host of idgits who likely have never even played on a stage, and if so, have an extremely limited understanding and grasp on musical diversity/vocabulary and don’t have even a cursory understanding or respect for experimental music. I repeat: YOU WERE AT AN ART GALLERY.

However, this kind of reaction is nothing new and all it does is prove that each and every complainer has absolutely zero taste and experience with actual talent. Squares always react this way when presented with real art as music. Thankfully, none of you make curatorial decisions. All these comments are proof of is that Low is real punk music. Lou Reed, Crass, Velvet Underground, Royal Trux, Suicide, Sonic Youth, and the like, are all laughing at you. At least you have another nonsense thing to complain about, at length, in your long line of first-world, self-created problems. Because what else do you create?

Which explains the choice of the word “divisive.” (More great give and take here)

But the tension and reaction, perhaps, was inevitable as more rock festivals feature partnerships with previously-unlikely bedfellows. Rock music and an art museum?

In the end, at least with one set, the locale won out. Art is supposed to satisfy, infuriate, cause a commotion and get people involved in spirited debate.

Mission accomplished, Low.

  • joetron2030

    Had I been there, I would have been more than happy with that set.

    It was interesting listening to the morning show hosts on the Current talking about this earlier today as I was driving in to work.

  • Chris

    Matthew St-German hit it right on. Artists don’t owe the crowd anything (in truth, not maybe from a financial aspect). No one is forcing you to consume something an artist puts out. If you want the same thing, every time, a live show that runs ‘the way a live show is supposed to’, go buy a gol dang Nickelback album and some Nickelback tickets and leave everyone else alone. People thinking art has to adhere to a set of rules undermines the concept of art entirely.

    And everyone should by default accept the ideas purported on twitter are usually a big steaming lode of you know what.

  • Jamison

    The only thing I would maybe consider is if they had publicized that they were going to be playing something very different than what they delivered. Or that perhaps the people running the event felt miffed that they thought they were getting something different than what happened.

    End of the day though, it’s their music and if you ask them to play it, it’s up to them how they want to present it. Not worth complaining over.

    • X.A. Smith

      I’ve seen Low live many times, and this set fits in well with my other experiences. An amazing performance. This is not unusual for Low.

  • kcmarshall

    I was listening to the concert on the radio while running errands. I heard the Low set start and then ran into the grocery store. When I came out, the song playing on the radio sounded exactly like what had heard 15 minutes before (now I know why). Then I turned off the radio.

    Low doesn’t owe me anything. I don’t owe Low anything. And I get some closure: I no longer have to worry about not appreciating Low like all the music critics seem to do.

    Final note – I made sure to tune in for the closing set by Metric and it was Awesome!

  • boofwad

    I wish I would have seen that. You’re there so artists can create art. You don’t have to like it but you should still learn to appreciate it.

  • Aaron Nyquist

    I think the disconnect was a good element. Although at the time I did not enjoy Low’s set as fitting in with the mood of the festival, the more I reflect, the more I appreciate it for the artistic statement that it was. As a number of commentators have pointed out, art is often intended to poke and prod us, and in that respect, Low succeeded. There’s a reason that they got everyone talking…

  • Joni Wheeler

    At the concert, no question; play what you want, but I question the decision to air the whole number live on the radio. It/that was stupefying.

    • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

      The only decision was to broadcast Rock The Garden. The Current doesn’t have set lists for the artists and had no knowledge that Low was going to do what it did.

      • Joni Wheeler

        You know, you are absolutely right. Armchair quarterbacking has reached a new low (pardon the pun) if I feel the need to participate. I did not enjoy listening and that is the only thing I am qualified to comment on. I could have turned it off but honestly, I kept expecting it to be over any second. Perhaps you felt the same? In any case, my apologies for commenting on something outside of my frame of reference.

        • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

          It would be a terrible shame if you felt disinclined to comment.

  • Suzanne Guertin

    I only moved to MN in ’06 & didn’t discover Low until I heard Alan
    Spearhawk’s side project, Retribution Gospel Choir, which I loved. I
    like Low’s music well enough, but I’m not a super fan. That said, I
    like Low the band and I want them to do well. I didn’t really like the
    set on Saturday, but I am fine with what they played. It was their
    choice and I had a good time. I don’t get why people are so angry about
    it.