What light: David Hansen reviews Heliotrope

Categories: Concert Review

Heliotrope Festival
May 15-17, Ritz Theater
Review by David Hansen
Photos by Daniel Corrigan

What happens when the underground becomes the mainstream? Heliotrope's five year ascent to the Ritz Theater has attracted names so big that its original mission statement to highlight contemporary underground music seems a little misapplied. Friday's players were no stranger to major local press (3 Picked to Click Winners), and few of them have a sound that would make the average Turf Club patron plug their ears. But why look gift horses in the mouth? The fact that Heliotrope is a little less subterranean and a little less arrhythmic this time around doesn't eclipse the fact that the three-day festival is the linchpin of the Art-A-Whirl festivities, and no one in attendance for Friday's show walked out disappointed.

Opening the show was keyboardist and circuit bender Milo Fine, who performed his subliminal set on a darkened wing of the Ritz stage, eclipsed by the illuminated guitars and drums that ominously awaited Daughters of The Sun. It was a lengthy instrumental span that Fine constructed, during which he exhibited a remarkable talent for testing the audience's patience without breaching it, altering the texture of the atonal hum oozing from his amps with a knob twist just often enough to keep the audience engaged. Fine played as if pursued by invisible enemies, writhing and contorting in darkness. He had but one vocal outburst-- it's impossible to know what he said under the drone of his keyboard, but it sounded, appropriately, like “Wolves!”

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Noise impresarios Sarah Johnson. More photos of Heliotrope by Daniel Corrigan.

Three-piece noise heads Sarah Johnson made inventive use of an upper level promontory, where they loomed imperiously over the seats, assailing their crowd with blanching, distorted slide guitar and rhythms that crested but never fully broke. The set was dedicated to the letter R (as in Rohipnol, the Ramones, and feeling All Right, to quote the band), and a happy accident was made of a faulty mic wire-- throughout the set, vocal intonations cut in and out, adding an intriguing dimension of unfathomability to an already challenging set.

Daughters of The Sun followed, and provided a captivating collection of meandering, hallucinogenic songs found relentless tribal rhythms and 60's psychadelia united in a shotgun wedding. Their sound has always been a thunderous pound softened by bottomless reverb, and they obviously enjoyed their time on the expansive Ritz stage. With mid-song instrument changes, a two drummer set-up, and a backdrop of Lysergic CGI, Daughters commanded the stage with trademark mystique.

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Knife World fill up your empty spaces. More photos of Heliotrope by Daniel Corrigan.

Two-piece metal freaks Knife World were the first band to coax the mounting but stage-shy crowd from the Ritz's cushy stadium seats. To a thrashing cluster of people that crowded the front of the house, Josh Journey-Heinz and Jon Nielsen made themselves an obvious stand-out just two songs deep into their searingly loud set which touched on songs from their recent vinyl release and their stellar EP from 2007. Alone at center stage and top lit by a single spotlight, Knife World managed to make the enormous space seem claustrophobic, overfilling with just drums and guitar a space big and vaunted enough to swallow lesser sounds in a gulp.

Knife World provided a perfect setup punch for the artsy, hyperactive, and precise Gay Beast, whose set suggested graduate calculus with an elevated pulse. A three-piece of many talents, Gay Beast managed to create a sound whose cerebral polyrhythms never detracted from the visceral effect of watching them perform, a talent that was evidenced by the dance party that swarmed and intensified at their feet.

Vampire Hands came next, and though they performed a sweaty, impassioned set, it seemed that many of their aural nuances and finery became lost in the Ritz's booming acoustics, which seemed to act as a deeper and deeper echo chamber as the night advanced (perhaps it was the steady migration of people from the seats to the floor that changed the room's dynamic). But they played a vigorous set, inviting Skoal Kodiak's Freddy Votel and several members of Daughters of the Son onstage to make a joyous spectacle of their last few songs. Any loss of sonic vibrancy went unnoticed by the watchful crowd who sat before them entranced and agape, and the intrepid were rewarded by a second set later in the night at Stasiu's, where their sound was sharp as a glass etching.

But there is little question that Skoal Kodiak brought the entire night off. Before the first song was done, the crowd had overtaken the Ritz stage, where they remained for the entirety of Skoal's set. It had been a point of much curiosity as the night progressed -- could Skoal Kodiak actually play to a seated audience, one that couldn't reach out and touch them as they played? Thankfully no, and the evening's success owes a debt of gratitude to the Ritz staff for allowing their stage to host Skoal's impromptu dance party. It was a magnificent final movement that channeled the celebratory exuberance sometimes achieved by the best house parties, brought the crowd face to face with relevant artists, and made everyone in attendance feel more like participants than spectators. Even if you've come to expect something a bit more “between the lines” from Heliotrope, getting to see Twin Cities' best and brightest share a stage is never something to complain about. -- David Hansen



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