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Varsity Theatre Grand Opening fe: the Bleeding Hickeys, A Whisper in the Noise, and Revolver Modelé (Saturday, January 29th, 2005, Varsity Theatre, Dinkytown)
A Whisper In The Noise play the Varsity Theatre on Saturday night. Photo by Cary Aria. (Click for full size)

By Cyn Collins

The Venue

I approached the Varsity Theatre with its old re-lit marquee with great anticipation, having heard it was not only another Jason McLean (Loring Café, Loring Pasta Bar) place with great decor and featuring the fantastic metal railing sculpture of Mark Scamp, but that it also boasted the artistic direction of Patrick Scully (former long-term director of Patrick's Cabaret.) I should expect an array of great performances of many genre's at the Varsity Theatre as a result: dance, theatre, films, and music.

The lobby, with friendly cashier and free (with recommended gratuity) coat check remained similar in look and vibe to an old movie theatre like The Riverview with its art deco theme. Luxurious and simple with the characteristic long table with candelabras and rich textile clothes, and small round intimate tables with candles in a well-lit room with a wine/beer and bread bar, converted from the concession stand. Black and jade green block carpet and caftan chairs and chandeliers completed the vibe, simply well done. I was glad to see another Al Wadjinski sculpture (strange looking animal made of scrap parts, funny) as there is in the Kitty Kat Club.

I looked in every nook and cranny with the delight of a child. Upstairs, there is a small balcony which is a great vantage point near the sound booth for up to about 8 people. It’s awesome to look down on the audience and bands from higher I think than First Avenue's balcony. And it’s a great place from which to take photos. As usual, I'm delighted by McLean's creative attention to what I like to call intimate spaces for anywhere from one to ten people.

I took a deep breath and opened the white theatre swinging doors expecting a surprise. WOW. Good thing I took a deep breath because the space and sound momentarily took my breath away. Deep in the vast wide, long space, the Bleeding Hickeys cast sharp poses enhanced by the illuminated rich primary colors of the huge movie screen behind them. The sound of their intense punk rhythms, and wildcat female vocals were perfect for the space and it for them. The space lends rock star quality to everyone. After basking in the glow of the music and the pulsing changes of vibrant colored backdrop, I took in my surroundings. Floor to ceiling red velvet curtains lining the walls the length of the deep space. Bar in the back where people can talk without disturbing music listeners. Walls lined the entire length by two tiers of, yes that’s right, air mattresses! covered in deep burgundy sateen throws and red pillows. Nearly no chairs, except for wooden square cases between the 30 to 40 mattresses all covered with anywhere from 1 - 6 people, shoes cast at the feet of the beds. I couldn't believe my eyes, why hadn't someone thought of this before?!

I walked around looking for a good vantage point and found a wooden block at the foot of a bed. The sturdy coffee tables (looking like they’d be great for dancing on if taken by that urge) with their antique lamps, caused this industrial-looking space to look like a quaint hotel. The design lent to a playfulness rarely seen as people danced on the tables, and the wooden stools on top of the 1.5 foot high approximately 10' x 20' wooden dance platform in the center of the vast cement floor. At Last someone has come up with a way for vertically challenged people such as me to see over the heads of tall people without having to stand in front and suffer hearing damage just to see! I was sooo delighted about this as were the numerous others sharing the platform space and dancing on the footstools. Whenever a new show began, people would run enthusiastically for the platform and onto the beds. It was fun to watch the childlike playground delight. Even though there were a lot of people there, it didn't feel crowded. I fell in love with the space at first sight, and knew I'd be back, and tell all my friends. Just GO!

The Bleeding Hickeys

The Bleeding Hickeys (whose set I only caught 2 songs of, but I thought they were excellent--tons of energy and verve) and the appearance of the space immediately made me think of Post-Industrial German clubs (or at least what I imagine them to be.) This thinking was confirmed by a German friend and fellow music fan. To me, that vibe is the essence of cool in a music venue. During the break between bands one of my favorite international bands, Super Furry Animals art DVD played on the gigantic screen. Sheer bliss. I could see this spot being fitting for SFA and their wild theatrical antics next go-round.

I knew that I couldn't afford to drink much because of the drink prices, but that was fine because I was becoming intoxicated by the scene and one great surprise after another. For once, I was not drinking copiously out of boredom and alienation in a space.

A Whisper in the Noise

A Whisper in the Noise play at the Varsity - Photo by Cary Aria (click for larger version)

A Whisper in the Noise came on to cloudy midnight-colored lighting. The lighting is one of the true highlights of this new space, creating drama and mood appropriately and creatively. I could almost see/hear Bauhaus performing "Bela Legosi's Dead" here. The crowd was immediately caught in the web of the dark intricacies of WITN and I was instantly swayed by their moody, atmospheric sound, enhanced by cello and violin, and the focal point of dark keyboards and vocals. Nothing brings emotive qualities of music to light like a string section, as the violin (well-played) is infinite in possibilities and near human sounding, yet alien. (One violinist once said, "Sounds more than human.") The cello has similar qualities, yet deeper and darker, like the bellows of a deep cavern or hell. While it appears I digress, I bring up these qualities because I feel that these string instruments so darkly and passionately played by tall, blonde Sonja Larson (violin) and somber-looking and bearded Chris Quinn (cello) were a great strength of this band. The strings, along with the primal rhythms of drummer Nicholas Conner and bassist Andrew Broste, the composition and complex keyboards, computer and soulful singing of West Thordson mesmerized me. At times the music sent chills down my spine and caused goose bumps. The audience slowly rocked and swayed or danced to the slow/hard techno and electronica. There's so much going on in their songs that the crowd (about 150-200 people by this point) was near hushed, really listening, and seemingly emotionally moved. I felt exhilarated and tranced out at the same time. Romantic and tragic at the same time. I haven't been moved emotionally like this by a local band in a long time.

Sometimes I wonder if Radiohead is referenced too often in regard to musical comparisons, in particular, by me. But the comparison, though slight, still crossed my mind during AWITN’s “Autumn’s Song.” I want to be clear that I don’t mean this band sounds derivative, but some of the best elements of various styles, particularly Brit rock, were referenced in a good way. After its keyboards, vocals and bass riffs with frantic violin punctuation, the song ultimately ending like a lullaby, reminding me at the same time of Pink Floyd. The fourth song, the introspective and dark "Traffic" featured chittering Bauhaus-style bass and distant wails and harmonies. This song made me feel like crying, as if from something long ago (perhaps lifetimes ago) and simultaneously sent chills down my spine. The next song, "Anymore" was atmospheric with great instrumental breaks between the consistently beautiful vocals and well-written lyrics, with blurs, nice depth, bass, and melody lines. There were heartfelt piano solos winding into futuristic driven electronic and techno keyboards. The band was “in the zone” at this point, and we knew it--sorrow-drenched fiddle, bitter vocals, hip-hop rhythms, strings sounding like a ghost chorus moaning. Swaying tragic strings.

We thought we heard Latin rhythms in the next song, "Aah, a rumba!", sighed an audience member in near relief from the release of the relentless emotional pull. “Tango” gave us a respite. Someone behind me exclaimed in surprise, "They're changing, again!" The next song, appropriately titled "Silence” began with a beautiful cello solo, followed by a gradual buildup of accompaniment. At this point, I'm thinking how lucky we are to be seeing such a show for only $7. The song "Last Night" seemed to have a macabre carnival sing-song rhythm. At this point another music lover, and fellow new WITN fan said, "their music makes me feel high." She hit the nail on the head. The music now turns to chunky grating, and a whale song, and plummeting violin, then ends abruptly.

The beginning of "Doves" reminded me of old Cure, maybe Pornography. Once more, exemplary arrangements.

The A Whisper in the Noise CD Through the Ides of March was recorded with Steve Albini (Nirvana and the Pixies.)

During the next break between bands, for our visual and aural pleasure, a full-length screening of . . . The Birthday Party, featuring Nick Cave! This is all too good to be true. Much happy audience commentary on the many pleasures ensued at this point.

Revolver Modelé

Revolver Modelé at the Varsity - Photo by Alan Berman

As smoke billowed up behind Nick Cave on the screen, I knew we were in for more lighting and technical fun for the next band, Revolver Modelé. Theirs was an immediately exciting show. People ran from all ends of the room and off the beds to come to the front, leaping onto the platform to dance wildly to the immediacy of RM's grooves. Their '80's Mancunian dance music reminded me of Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, Bauhaus (sorry I keep bringing them up, but that seems to be the band running thru my head lately and I’m hearing it everywhere including a recent Black-eyed Snakes performance.) With some old Cure guitar and bass in for good measure, RM has a strange charisma in its fraught energy, tragic lyrics, and wild dance show. Guitarist Mikal Arnold was phenomenal. Wearing a Black-eyed Snakes T-shirt, and with kohl-lined eyes, he danced fantastically, cat-like, leaping and prowling all over the stage. Singer/guitarist Ehsan Alam, tall, dark, and wiry, dressed in a pink shirt with wide black/white striped tie, and black cowboy hat, also danced like crazy, like . . . Ian Curtis back in the day. Or like Iggy . . . as he lashed out with daggers of pain-filled vocals. Bassist Natasha Hasset coolly provided dark, complex rhythms, while drummer Eric Siljander drove the crowd to fervent dancing and into a wild, running mosh. (It wasn't crowded in spite of large numbers, so there was room for people to run and leap at each other from off the steps of the stage as far as 8' away. Some crashed into the floor instead of people, but that happens. They just laughed and leapt some more).

The vibe and music made everyone feel cool. The crowd was full of all sorts of dress, makeup, ages, types. . . Goths, hipsters, hippies, punks, undefinables. The first song "Ah, Ah, Ah", was reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen, the second “Deca-Dance” made me think of what might happen if you put Joy Division and the Cure together in a blender. The third song "Ache" was an immediate favorite of mine, with bitter lyrics, Alam chanted, "your legs are wrapped around my ribs. . . Can you feel my heart ache?" Changing mood, pace and volume, sometimes a whispering chant repeated until it reached a crescendo, from endearing to grief-ridden, Alam pretty much captured the angst and uncertainty in a relationship even during its moments of deepest intimacy, just one example of the many ways Revolver Modelé plays with mood and emotions. The bass continued to sound Bauhaus-inspired to me (apologies to Natasha if I'm wrong). The band commented between songs about the amount of dry-ice smoke making it impossible to see, asking was it the same for us? (It was hazy, but we could see), Alam continued to dance sinuously to the wailing guitars.

The fourth song “Masks” featured Cure-like guitar! (Yay.) Alam danced even more wildly if that’s possible and began to loosen most of his clothing. (Clothes look very encumbering at times for him.) At times, his vocals, reminded me of Joey Ramone, this idea aided by some of the similar rhythms. There was wild applause for this song (as for the others, but this was a crowd favorite). There were many more dancers at this point dancing on many of the tables and the foot stools and jumping up and down off the stage steps. Mikal Arnold took the lead vocals on this one, saying this song was from a John Waters movie. The fifth song, "Closing In" had a twangy element at first then a primitive harder "The Forest" like pulsating rhythm that drove the crowd into a frenzy. The sixth song, "Artifact" featured more primitive drumming, clear and then blurring guitars. "Delirium" featured unbelievable bass, and it was then I realized that Revolver Modelé has become another of my favorite bands. I definitely couldn't get enough of the guitar or watching Alam dance, let alone hear him sing. This band really blew me away.

During RM’s performance, '50's science education films and commercials such as Schlitz beer played out on the movie screen for a nice contrast. Overall, I’d have to say this was one of the sexiest shows I've seen. One new RM lover commented enthusiastically that the band "is SO fun to watch" and "bleeds sex".

Cyn Collins is

See also:

MN Daily Article on the Re-Opening of the Varsity

Cinema Treasures article on the theatre's history