For the last five years, the Heliotrope Festival has provided a haven for the mystic, ascetic, improvisational, and droning. Band and individual performers play in darkened rooms with a backdrop of carefully chosen screen images and lighting; it can be cathartic or trippy, depending on who's onstage. The commonality is a local focus and a low-key atmosphere. The bands split up the profits equally, and set order is determined not by status, but by feel. Salamander guitarist Erik Wivinus, one of the festival's organizers, likens it to making a "great mix CD."
Heliotrope began as a happy accident. Rich Barlow, guitarist for the Pins and a co-founder of experimental theater troupe Flaneur Productions (with Jim Bovino and Don Mabley-Allen) had an empty room reserved in spring 2004. Barlow and Wivinus decided the time was right to book their dream music festival. "I'd get really tired of everyone I knew saying there was nothing going on," says Barlow, sitting with Wivinus at Diamonds Coffee in northeast Minneapolis. "My feeling is that you can either complain about stuff or you can change it. I don't particularly like complaining."
The festival was an instant, modest success. Experimenters, agitators, and aesthetes found camaraderie and new audiences. But the venue, Franklin Art Works, had drawbacks. Anything making the cavernous space comfortable had to be hauled in, which didn't offset the free rent. Franklin's sound was harsh and brittle, so many wall-of-sound bands were omitted from the lineup in the early years.
The Ritz in Northeast had been on the group's radar, and when Bovino was hired at the theater, the move was cemented. Any qualms were smashed last year when Skoal Kodiak played midway through the festival—within 10 minutes the bass/drums/amplified-bleach-bottle trio filled the stage with a hundred dancers. "I hate hosting a party because you always worry about everyone having a good time," says Barlow. "You want to talk to everyone and then talk to no one. Hosting [Heliotrope] is like that. And at that moment, I said, 'I don't have to worry about it anymore. Everyone's having a good time.'" Wivinus puts it succinctly: "Hey! We put on this thing, and they're having a blast!"
For this year's festival, a highlight will be the appearance of Japanese psychedelic/space-rock duo Suishou No Fune. It will be a bittersweet return for Suishou, who befriended Salamander and played with drummer Matt Zaun in Minneapolis and Chicago last summer. Zaun passed away in November at age 34. Heliotrope V plans to honor Zaun's immense contributions with a display of his wonderful graphic art.
In the end, Heliotrope is as much a cheerleader for a method of operation as it is a showcase for musicians. Wivinus says that every show put on at the Ritz encourages local bands to look into non-club venues. And Barlow says, "If we can pull this off with no resources, you have to wonder why people with resources can't make it happen. It takes a hell of a lot of work, and it is a labor of love, we absolutely bust ass to make it happen. But we can do it. It's just hard work. And hard work is different from impossible."
HELIOTROPE V, with SUISHOU NO FUNE, SKOAL KODIAK, KNIFE WORLD, TO KILL A PETTY BOURGEOISIE, and many more, runs THURSDAY, MAY 15, through SATURDAY, MAY 17, at the RITZ THEATER; 612.623.7660