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Minneapolis's warmer months are in short supply, so street festivals and block parties are a fixture of every weekend. Though it's hard to stand out among so much musical madness, that is exactly what the experimental music festival Heliotrope has done over the course of eight successful runs. With the ninth annual event taking place at the Lab Theater this weekend, more fans than ever will be introduced to the thriving, vital local underground music scene.
Co-curators Richard Barlow and Erik Wivinus have worked hard to cultivate a consistently challenging and diverse musical lineup that shines a light on underrepresented artists. According to Barlow, the first Heliotrope happened almost accidentally, and was born out of his and Wivinus's shared musical interests. "I think both Erik and I had long felt that the kind of music we found most interesting didn't get as much press or attention in Minneapolis as it deserved. We both have pretty wide-ranging tastes, but tend to be attracted to the unusual, experimental, and committed. I felt like the festival would be a great way to show how much interesting stuff was going on under the radar, and introduce like-minded bands to each other and each others' audiences."
After moving from the Ritz for a one-year stint at the now-shuttered Loring Theater, event organizers have found a new home at the Lab Theater in the Warehouse District, a change that Wivinus is excited about. "The move to the Lab should be a great one for all concerned. It still has the 'theater' setting, but for those people in our audience who are less fond of theater seating and formal stages, there are both seats and a large floor area to be more mobile in, and the stage area itself is much less formal, being another part of the main floor. I'm really excited about it as a stage manager and as a spectator."
But the music is the ultimate draw of any festival, and once again Heliotrope has assembled a stellar lineup. A rare live performance by legendary local noisemakers TVBC is certainly a standout for the festival, as are sets by synth-pop trio Claps, electro-clash duo the Night, and the intense black metal of Maledicere.
That type of bold musical diversity is certainly part of Heliotrope's enduring appeal, and clearly a goal of Barlow and Wivinus when they put together the festival. "I think there is a singular vision within the festival's eclecticism," explains Barlow. "I think it tends to be somewhat more experimental than other festivals, but also wide-ranging — so it is not exclusively dedicated to one form or another, yet the acts all hold together, like a good mix."
And musicians certainly feel at home and at ease at Heliotrope as well. Erstwhile Low bassist Zak Sally has taken part in the festival every year with his unconventional noise-rock outfit White Map, and feels a strong connection to the cause. "Heliotrope is something that I think the entire music community of Minneapolis looks forward to every year. Okay, well, the entire oddball music community, of which I am a proud member. With all these ridiculous, bloated festivals happening all over the country, having something that is really about people who are making music, and doing weird shit in their own community, is a seriously special thing. There's plenty of ways to make a thing like this not work, but Rich and Erik have done a great curatorial job over the years, keeping room for old stalwarts while still making sure there's enough new blood to keep it fresh."
Added attention to the visual element of live performance also helps to bring a distinct flair to Heliotrope, with Don Mabley-Allen running the striking light show, while Emily Kaplan provides live video mixing while bands are performing, which brings an extra artistic flourish to the shows. When you add it all up, the experimental music community in the Twin Cities is certainly growing and finding its audience, thanks to the efforts of those involved in Heliotrope.
"It seems like we have made a name for Heliotrope, where people are excited about the festival and what we will be presenting," says Barlow modestly. "We are finding, too, that as that happens, bands are more and more eager to play the festival. It's still pretty much a shoestring, seat-of-the-pants affair, but we are getting slightly better at knowing how to run things." More information at thelabtheater.org/#!heliotrope.