MUSIC | A night at the Varsity: God is good

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Sometimes you catch a good show at a good place, and then sometimes you have a night you wish you could bottle and put on the shelf so whenever you’re having a lousy time you can pour it over ice and get some instant feel-good. My night at the Varsity Theater last week was definitely well-worth bottling.

You really have to work on it not to enjoy yourself at the Varsity, purely on the basis of the atmosphere. As soon as you walk in the door, you have the comforts of home. The lights are low in a gorgeously appointed lobby with chairs and couches so cushy you could sit down and happily wait for hell to freeze over. After you’re greeted at the reception stand by someone who understands courteous professionalism, you glide on into the theater and may as well be in a gigantic living room. It’s exactly like the lobby, intimate to a tee, except a whole lot bigger. You sidle up to the bar and, guess what, that courteous greeting you got a minute ago turns out to be contagious. The bartender, instead of looking at you like you’re begging for spare change, is cordial, promptly efficient and, wonder of wonders, serves you a decent drink. (Anybody who’s ever been handed one of those ice-filled glasses of colored water can appreciate sipping on something strong enough to kick a mule’s ass.)

All that is before the music even gets started. This particular night, I wasn’t much interested in sitting through an opening act, having looked forward a good two months to seeing headliner Alicia Wiley. And there were three—count ‘em, three—openers. God is good. The Zmo Trio (out of St. Paul) threw down with some of the sweetest, tight-as-the-crack-of-dawn sounds I’ve ever heard, jazz-drenched pop showcasing incredibly haunting vocals. The lineup: Zachary Miles Ojeda (bass, vocals), Andrew Thornbrough (drums), and Shawn Vaughan (piano). Look for these guys on the horizon and, when they blow up big as Fat Albert, remember I told you so. Also on the bill was Dan Rodriguez (who looks so much like Freddie Prinze it’s a bit scary), doing soul and R&B. He opened and closed strong as sulfuric acid. In between, he was serviceable—which is more than can be said of hip-hop heavy Carnage. Carnage’s set was so lame I sat there wondering how in the blue bloody blazes he got his widely spread reputation as a master of the artform. On the bright side: what the heck, you’ve got to go outside and take a cigarette break sometime.

As a real plus to the evening, I bumped into two area celebs. Standing on the sidewalk, I bummed a Benson & Hedges off premier prose-poet (go ahead, say that five times fast) Sol Testimony, who, pretty as ten peacocks, referred me to someone who could braid my bushy locks. Inside, I run into hip-hop siren Desdamona and, after she gave me a hug, had to sit down. Between the two of those lovelies, it was a wee bit more than an old man could stand without reaching for blood pressure medicine.

Not having any blood pressure medicine on hand, I settled for sipping my drink—which, being distracted by the sight of a lady whose acquaintance I’d to this day like to make, I managed to spill. Great, just great. So, I went to the bar tender, looking for a rag. When I told her I spilled my drink, before I could ask for the rag, she politely poured me a refill. Politely and sensibly: the fresh round was appreciably low-octane (how was she to know it was a legitimate mistake). I thanked her, left the drink on the bar, and grabbed a fistful of napkins.

All things being equal, I counted myself ahead of the game, went to sit back down and catch me some Alicia Wiley.

Alicia Wiley, short and simple, could blow a hurricane back out to sea. That’s the kind of chops she got. She played tasty keys and sang like an angel, seducing with her trademark sardonic melodies. It being the release gig for her new CD, Halfway Home, she anchored the set with material from that album. And killed. In cold blood. When she was recording the disc, Alicia advised me it would depart from her characteristic melancholy, getting off more on the sweetly sentimental tip. Well, don’t tell her I said so, but, sweet sentiment and the whole nine, Wiley’s stark sensibility remains evident on Halfway Home, angst heartrending enough to make Sylvia Plath seem optimistic.

This is good a time as any to throw in a conflict-of-interest disclaimer. I’ve been an Alicia Wiley fanatic since I first caught her, years ago, opening for Willie Walker & The Butanes at the Cabooze. And I rave about her every chance I get. When I heard her waxing sultry as summer heat on “Halfway Home” off Pachyderm’s So Large We Ran Out Room compilation, I had to ask (actually, I begged) whether she’d sing with me in the studio. I’m still pinching myself that she agreed. Further, for the Varsity gig, Alicia had Yohannes Tona on hand, killing bass so bad he need to be arrested for murder. As with Wiley, I begged and he too agreed to record with me. Let it not be said top-flight Twin Cities musicians have no charity in their hearts.

It was one hell of a night. Varsity Theater management should conduct a clinic in customer service and half the Twin Cities clubs should be made to attend on pain of losing their license to serve the public. I found out about the Zmo Trio and got to see Alicia Wiley. Like I said, too bad some experiences can’t be stowed away for a rainy day.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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