Heer commzz tha sunnn: At the Heliotrope Festival, experimentation is required

Skoal Kodiak and (below) Thunderbolt Pagoda perform at Heliotrope 5. Photos by Adam Bubloz.

May 28-30 marks the sixth incarnation of the Heliotrope Festival, an event dedicated to expanding the ears and minds of Twin Cities audiences with some of the best underground and experimental music the region has to offer. The three-day event, which runs Thursday through Saturday and is organized by Flaneur Productions, will once again take place at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis.

The original goal of the festival, according to co-founder Rich Barlow, was to “highlight how much interesting music is being made in town, music that doesn't get covered by local radio and press as much as it deserves.” The majority of the artists at Heliotrope—a word that has a variety of meanings but generally means plans that turn towards the sun—are from the immediate Twin Cities area, although there are exceptions including Madison's Spires That In The Sunset Rise.

“In some ways,” Barlow says, ”putting the lineup together is like making a good mix tape, where you want to have some thematic consistencies as well as interesting juxtapositions. I like the idea of an audience member discovering something they would have never heard before.”

The artists at Heliotrope 6 cover a wide range of musical expression. Thursday night audiences will be treated to the meandering folk excursions of Take Acre, the International Novelty Gamelan, a group that plays new music for the shimmering bells and cymbals of the Indonesian gamelan orchestras, and the subdued, often haunting tape loops of Visions of Christ. The night will also feature former TVBC guitarist Paul Metzger's amazing work on his modified banjo; his addition of sympathetic strings deftly amalgamates strains of American folk and Hindustani sitar music.

Friday night features Gay Witch Abortion (who recently serenaded a seafaring—or, at least, riverfaring—audience by performing on a raft), Minnesota rock and roll legend Michael Yonkers, and a duet performance by avant-garde improvisers Davu Seru (on percussion) and Milo Fine (on reeds, percussion, and piano). Fine, a bedrock of the Twin Cities improv community for more than 40 years, has recorded with guitarist Derek Bailey in 2003 (having also participated in Bailey's Company Week in 1988) and saxophonist Anthony Braxton in 2004.

Saturday night will feature the multi-instrumental jazz-inflected improvisation of Aerosol Pike, the darkly danceable electro of Mach Fox, and what are sure to be raucous performances by Skoal Kodiak and Vampire Hands. The latter two bands invited audiences to rock out with them onstage at Heliotrope 5; hopefully that'll be repeated this weekend.

In addition to these and other artists, there will be a visual dimension to the event. “Heliotrope was mainly conceived as a music event, but it has always been important to me that it be more than just some bands playing in a space,” says Barlow, a visual artist himself. While not quite a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, there will be much to look at in addition to the music performed, including video montages and projections by Emily Kaplan.

Behind the scenes, the festival is run on what Barlow says is a “strictly socialist model.” Every act “gets an equal cut of any profit made at the door, and the organizers get the same amount as the performers.” In the midst of so many artistic events suffering from the economic crisis, the organizers of Heliotrope are confident that with such a model, as well as with the wealth of talent represented in the event's line up, the weekend will not only offer extraordinary aural and visual experiences for its audiences, but also provide a solid foundation for an ever more radiant future.

Justin Schell (schel115 [at] umn [dot] edu) is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota's Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He's working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.

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    Justin Schell's picture
    Justin Schell

    Justin Schell (612to651 [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance writer and grad student in Minneapolis.