Live Transmission Filled Varsity Theater With Retro Cool

Live Transmission with Two Harbors, BNLX, The Ocean Blue, Frankie Teardrop, the Rope, and Gloss
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Saturday, November 29

DJ Jake Rudh's long-running Transmission dance night at Club Jäger got a live reinterpretation Saturday at the Varsity. Six acts spanning post-punk, new wave and indie rock adequately brought the concept to the stage over five hours. All of the groups were most strongly linked to Minnesota except headliners the Ocean Blue, who also have Pennsylvania ties.


Two Harbors kicked off the evening's second half. Their music is both guitar-driven and heavily influenced by Brit pop sensibility for structure. Their lead singer Chris Pavlich's voice has a slight undertone of dissonant unease, a bit like the Psychedelic Furs but not as intense. The strongest one-two punch in their 25-minute outing started with a cover of the Smiths' "This Charming Man." Pavlich sang really hard, as one must when doing Moz, and the guitars kept it lively. They followed this with "See You Down the Road" from their latest release. It was a departure from the Smiths, bringing big, loud, angst that called to mind Bends era Radiohead -- though with lyrics that are a little less subtle.

The show did double-duty as the release party for local post-punkers BNLX's ninth EP. It's a very interesting record, equal parts peppy and obscured, and they played three of the four tracks -- leaving out, unsurprisingly, the 21-minute drone of "It Was the Light." Live, the band ups the fuzz to a whole new level, creating an engagingly muddy sound. The lack of crispness held back a few harmonies early in the set, but the band soon found their groove and gave a performance worthy of the occasion.

"Meet Me on the Barricades" showed off the potential of having both male and female vocals playing off of each other. The nod to the student uprising of 1968 Paris -- under the paving stones, the beach -- gave the song a bit of specificity that's rare for compositions about revolution. "Flextime" and "110 db," both gave Ed Ackerson opportunity to showcase his unusual guitar style. He seems to play by manipulating the body of the instrument, keeping off the strings throughout even solo licks. This leads to a distinctive sound shot-through with vibrato and feedback, as well as an intriguing visual profile.

In a night full of covers, BNLX' s rendition of New Order's "Age of Consent" was the biggest hit. It got most of the audience to get down, though the half-full Varsity never quite got crowded enough for a full dance party. The sharp guitar riffs and unapologetically earnest lyrics -- that are somehow still cool -- were a perfect fit. The band leaned into it too, giving it the sad swagger needed for most New Order songs. As the final strains of the final riff ended, frontman Ed Ackerson smirked at the crowd. "That's a good one, isn't it?"

Later in the set, they brought out another cover, this one from their EP -- PJ Harvey's "This is Love." It was a strong vocal performance from Ashley Ackerson, bringing to mind the smoldering quality of the original. The band's noisey vibrancy complemented it well.

The crowd thinned slightly after BNLX concluded their 40-minute set with a modest shower of confetti. Those who stuck around were treated to a strong performance by the Ocean Blue. On a first listen, the group come across as almost uncannily British, though they hail from an Americana town best known for a chocolate factory. This isn't due to cheap copying -- the band just has the level of precise control, melancholy and embrace of new influences that call to mind the U.K. branch of post-punk.

They brought on several guest musicians to support them, including a saxophone player during "Drifting, Falling." That song successfully conveyed the loose sadness of feeling untethered from life while remaining a very tight and grounded performance. "Between Something and Nothing" lost a little precision live when compared to the airtight record, but was anchored by one of many strong rhythm section outings.

Much of the set's personality came from Oed Ronne's guitar, only properly unleashed during its second half. The biting and wailing rock left no doubt that this group was all-American despite their sophistication. They closed with "There is a Light that Never Goes Out," the most overdone of all the many songs the Smiths overdid, but the seasoned pros lent it enough personality and pathos to carry it along anyway.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: The last two shows I reviewed were Insane Clown Posse and Motley Crue. It was nice to see something a little less over the top.

The crowd: Very cool and appreciative. The most man-buns I've seen IRL.

Random notebook dump: Varsity has a stack of high chairs against one of their walls. I guess they're really committed to all-ages shows.


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