For Whom the Band Toils Bridge Club with The Future and Death to Our Enemies & Economy Team The Varsity Theatre Minneapolis, Minnesota August 31st, 2006 "Between the Idea and the Reality... falls the Shadow." --T.S. Elliot T.S. Elliot must have been in a rock and roll band to come to grips with such a smooth pearl of wisdom. The idea of a rock and roll band is a monument to some of the finest human capacities. The reality of a rock and roll band depends largely on how they cope with the shadow... It was a pleasant evening in a very fast and cruel city-utter disappointment is as common as electricity-and a cool dark breeze snaked down the collar of my shirt as I walked through Dinkytown toward the Varsity Theatre's towering marquee. The streets were unnaturally quiet with the first tides of fall pushing down from the north on a beautiful starry night with hearts, moons, clovers, flying bicycles, horseshoes, pot's of gold, rainbows and red balloons. Whoops. "Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to eat all those pills at once," I thought aloud "This is a pretty large order of benzodiazepines," the pharmacist said skeptically when I filled the prescription. "I've got a nervous horse," I lied. The pharmacist wrinkled his brow. "Maybe you should see a veterinarian then." "Nonsense," I said impatiently. "It's a miniature horse and it can't swallow those large animal pills. It could choke to death. Now please hurry, I'm late for an important assignment as a rock critic." "You're a journalist? Why didn't you say so...? Tell your horse not to operate heavy machinery and avoid confusion when taking these. Oh, and watch out for ataxia." "What's ataxia?" I asked. "The Central Nervous system's GABA receptor gets bogged down causing the victim to lose all muscle coordination. Your horse's knees will go wobbly and then he'll fall down and swallow his tongue." "Jesus," I cried, "do you have any pills in case something like that happens?" "Sure, Flumazenil. Give me a minute to dig some up." To get the proper perspective for my first rock and roll show as a journalist, the pills, I felt, were essential. I was assigned to cover Bridge Club, a local three-piece I was already familiar with, and I knew from experience that it was going to take the right kind of eyes to truly appreciate their performance as a professional. Becoming a rock critic was a personal breakthrough; I couldn't blow it with a bunch of amateur gibberish, I needed to deliver from a necessary vantage and would have to chance falling off the ledge and swallowing my tongue. I crossed a lonely intersection and stopped, momentarily, outside the window of a small bar to rest my knees. There were football highlights playing on the television set inside. The aroma of hamburger and sun-baked concrete was rolling through a darkened alley. Watching the muscular, high-priced football players jack-hammering into each other under the white flood of stadium lights, as the television roared with every violent blow, it occurred to me that the players shared a striking similarity with rock musicians: two professions that demand speed, precision, violence and brotherhood. Both the musician and football player spend days and weeks-often the entirety of their youth-harnessing their power for those rare moments when the lights jump on and all hell breaks loose. If they are lucky, their careers will last more than five relevant years. Indeed, look closely. There is not much difference in the faces of a crazed linebacker bearing down on an exposed quarterback and that of a rock musician on stage wailing at an instrument. They are bloodthirsty savages who want to mash you into jelly and get paid for doing it-in sex & drugs, fame & fortune, and whatever else they can squeeze from you. They are modern hero's whose images are tacked to countless bedroom walls and gossiped over in maddening detail, second in deity to only God. Or is it the Devil? Errrrrrrt! A searing horn blasted twenty feet behind me. A long black Lincoln Towncar without headlights burst down the alley and skidded around the corner, squealing it's tires as it caught the well oiled road and roared through a red light, fishtailing toward the jawbone silhouette of downtown. It came within three feet from plastering me to a brick sidewall. The driver appeared to be holding a long, curved sickle in one hand and a liter of premium whiskey in the other. He was steering the powerful car expertly with his bony knees. I didn't get a good look at his face because it was draped beneath the hood of a long black robe, but there was something oddly familiar about him. Something in the red glow of his eyes. Uncle Randy? Couldn't be. Uncle randy doesn't own a sickle, does he? No, it wasn't Randy. It was Him. And I don't think He appreciated the correlation I was attempting to make. He takes plenty of souls from the ranks of rock musicians and professional football players, and anyone trying to connect the dots better have their head on a swivel. Let's drop that string of thought before it's too late. I admire my life enough to not wander too deep into the Devil's ways and means. Besides, I was a rock critic with an all-access press pass to the Varsity Theatre, and it's difficult to see the stage laid out on a stretcher. Leave the football to the sports writing hacks and let someone else deal with Devil, I thought, turning on my heels and wading out again down the belly of Dinkytown. Everything was falling into place: cool weather, football on television, rock and roll bands, near misses by the Grim Reaper, an all-access press pass. It was the perfect night to get seriously into loud music. Or that's the way it seemed until the Shadow clamped down. ********** Fall is the best time to attend rock concerts (f*** the leaves and the apple orchards; they are for chronic bed-wetter's). Autumn brings a certain sense of doom that lends itself divinely to loud, intense rock music-it's in the stars for those of you bent on mysticism-the failing temperature and sudden sunsets warn of an impending collapse in summer's friendliness. Things will get mean and ugly in the near future: dead batteries, aching toes, total darkness, ball-breaking cold, wolves at the door. It is inevitable. But for a few short weeks each year, Rock and Roll meets Mother Nature head on in wicked battle of wills. And tonight, I was looking forward to getting caught in the middle. The blood and guts would make for great copy. Three blocks later, I came upon the brilliant marquee reaching up over the neighborhood's heavy brick buildings. Framed in stark yellow lights it read: Bridge Club with The Future and Death to Our Enemies Hot damn, I thought, a moment of pure beauty. Like when the whirling tumblers of a combination lock drop into place. I've been a longtime fan of Bridge Club and seeing their name high off the street in large black lettering was proof of a lot of things I've said about the band. It looked and felt Right. Suddenly a knot gripped my stomach. Uh oh. The black marquee lettering reeled away into the distance and then throbbed back to within inches of my nose as a flood of strange memories fused my brain circuits together... a white hot light opened behind my eyes... The sickening sensation of falling... falling... It wasn't ataxia. It was worse: hallucinations. A handful of chalky benzodiazepines had plunged me into a hideous nightmare. A heinous flashback to the first time I accidentally saw Bridge Club perform two years ago. Sweet Jesus, the pharmacist never said anything about uncontrollable flashbacks. I was overcome with monstrous visions of a night exactly like tonight... The terrible urge to get blind drunk immediately... sitting at the bar in Big V's with a known felon when three handsome men confidently step out onto the stage... "Who's this?" A weird hush then the fantastic jolt of black lightning that cracked down my spine as the first burst of a guitar came down like a hammer ... louder and louder... The drums start kicking like a mule... "Yeah sure. Make it a double." Air is being savagely sucked out of my lungs... The lanky singer is foaming at the mouth... The felon is pounding his fists on the bar... going off the rails and over the side... hard to breathe... "Where's my drink goddammit." "Who is this? "Bicycle Chain?" "Bird Claw?' 'What?" That night will be with me for a long, long time. Some scars are forever, and after wearing them awhile, you can fool yourself into believing they are badges. Bridge Club was the middle domino in a long terrible chain that nearly culminated with me being permanently brain damaged when... well... what's done is done. The point is I have history with Bridge Club. They are, by a wide margin, the single best straightforward rock band in Minneapolis. They are stone-cold lions, and on certain nights you too might end up stuffed in a mason jar if you catch them when they crank it up and bring the teeth down. Watching them on those nights is like sucking on a downed power line, and staring up at the brilliant marquee outside the renovated Varsity Theatre on a night tailor-made for rock and roll, I figured the odds of being mashed into jelly were almost a cinch. Reaching into my pocket for the press pass, I felt the smooth, reassuring heft of my industrial strength bear mace dispenser. With a simple press of my thumb, the chrome canister would blast a fog of mace in a wicked thirty degree arc, effectively bringing any wild bear within twenty feet to their knees and blinding them for at least two days. I wasn't planning on using the mace during the show, not as a respected journalist at least, I'd taken to carrying it around as an answer to the problems of counter-clockwise lifestyle in Minneapolis, discovering many wonderful applications for bear mace along the way. However, if I couldn't get these damn flashbacks under control things were bound to get ugly, and this time I was prepared to spread the brain damage around. I left the mace hidden in the pocket and kept digging for the press pass. I'd left it at home by mistake. It was on the desk next to my wallet. All I had was keys and mace, no press pass, money, or identification. I'd savagely harassed an editor for two weeks to get the press pass. All access press passes are the Holy Grail of rock critics, without them your name may as well be Mud. The journalism business is tough shit, man. The only hope, now, of getting into the show, and for free, was to spray a quick shot of the mace into the doorman's face when he reached for my identification. Then quickly slip into the crowd unnoticed in the fog and commotion. Ignore the cries and flailing bodies, and start pointing in the other direction. But I was here as a rock critic, and I knew that the doorman would be expecting dirty tricks from a journalist. Doormen have a natural hatred of anyone who can bypass their authority with a snicker and sneer of privilege; pulling the mace out of my pocket was the only excuse he would need to dent my face and remove my fingertips. The only workable plan, I realized, was to bust through the entrance like a human cannonball shouting, "Make way I'm a respected rock critic, you dingbats. God damnit let me through." Hold my notebook over my head and start taking names of anyone who asked questions. An all or nothing run straight at them, full of impatience and superior attitude. Who wouldn't believe me? What could go wrong? Tonight, The Future is slated second on the bill-another sign of Providence. The Future is a super promising band that's relatively new to me. I was eager to see them for a second time, having caught them open for Bridge Club once in the past. That night, they came out and screwed me down to the floor. They were great, but I wasn't a journalist then; so I was curious to see if they really had the jump I thought I'd heard as a laymen. I fixed a journalist's air and spread a giant smile at two pretty girls passing by, 'Good evening ladies.' 'F*** you creep.' Everything was going to work out. This was going to be a great show. But I was dead wrong. ********* The high began to unravel when it dawned on me that I was standing conspicuously outside the theatre completely alone; except for a lone girl shuffling her feet in the open doorway with a bulky sweater wrapped around her neck. She looked faintly embarrassed for me, obviously confused, standing on the sidewalk with the blood draining from my face. Something had gone horribly wrong: nobody was going in or coming out of the Theatre. The posh Varsity lobby, glowing behind large panes of glass, was deserted. A black cat, hissing wildly, leapt out from under a bench and darted off under a series of ladders, veering across the street and finally disappearing as it smashed through a mirrored window in a hearse parked along the opposite curb. An ambulance wailed far off in the distance. It was 10:07 PM. Where was everybody? Was the show canceled? Did I take a wrong turn somewhere? Somehow I had ended up outside a stylish funeral parlor. I went inside the building under the misleading marquee to get directions. A fashionable girl, lazily turning through the pages of a textbook with both feet propped on the counter, assured me this was indeed the Varsity Theatre, and no, they didn't have any coffins for sale. She bought my jabbered explanation about being a journalist, rolled her eyes and wrapped a green paper bracelet around my wrist. "Have fun," the bored girl said with a crooked smile as I carefully edged deeper into the theatre. She at least had a mortician's sense of humor. The mace canister felt red-hot in my pants pocket. The scene inside The Varsity Theatre was impotent-soft, limp and a million miles from climax. It was an atmosphere suited for homely coffee shops, but not very encouraging for anyone hoping to find high-strung music and half-mad rock and roll fans. Those of us who were looking for action would've had more excitement at an actual funeral, which, at least, have emotion. And in this particular situation, it's not what you make of it. There is no reward for trying to stir up something with a sense of movement when you're paralyzed from the brain down. I was dumbstruck. Imagine trying to stuff a large marshmallow through a standard keyhole and you'll get the drift of the situation. Pressure is pointless because the marshmallow just oozes around the thumb and very little of it makes it's way to the other side. The Varsity Theatre was built to handle a fairly large crowd, and the sheer volume of empty space when I stood at the foot of main floor was hard to ignore. It was an uncomfortable situation. Twenty-odd people were lifelessly spread out on modern couches receding from the stage at the far end of the room, appearing as clothed skeletons under the dramatic mood lighting. The level of anticipation was somewhere between bored and resigned. Occasional bits of broken conversation were echoing off the black walls, interrupting subdued music barely coming out of the many speakers stationed under colorful tapestries artfully draped across the high ceiling. The stage was dark-none of the bands had played yet. A thin silhouette was assembling a drum-kit on the stage riser. This is an exact quote from my notebook, "Theatre incredibly empty. 23 people right now. Mood is terminal. Similar to watching your wallet sink into a dirty toilet. Bands may be stalling." It was still early, too early to panic. I hoped like hell more tickets would be sold as the night progressed; otherwise my fanciful ideas of depraved grandeur were going to land flat on their face. I have never been able to get a handle on the fashionably late principle, but I kept thinking I must have botched the calendar-this had to be the wrong date. This is Minneapolis; people here are always patting themselves on the back and making bold statements about the city as an oasis for musicians. I can't count the number of times I've heard, or read in print, of Minneapolis as a musically "vibrant" city; enough times to believe it though. Every other person in this town with a fashionable haircut is in a band, and the prevailing attitude seems to be that there is plenty of local support to keep them all in vogue for quite some time. So why was no one here? Thinking about it now, the wiser choice was to leave at once and keep my illusions intact, but foolishly, I stayed and got sucked into Reality. I milled about aimlessly for awhile, waiting for a flood of tardy concert-goers to come tumbling toward the stage, and then decided to abandon the empty main room in favor of the smaller lobby when it became clear the flood was holed up behind some invisible dam. The plush hotel-esque lobby is a genuinely comfortable place to sit and have a drink when you want a slight escape from the stage, but it is awfully lonely when you're only one of three bored patrons sitting on one of the many couches. There is another room up a flight of curving stairs on the west end of the lobby that leads to more couches, two tasteful bathrooms and a cramped pool table that seldom gets used, and this is where I retreated for large parts of the evening with a professional photographer to brood on the depressing turnout. The photographer had a similar reaction to mine when he first arrived: bewilderment. He had actually walked under the marquee and around the building to the other side where he assumed the real entrance and throng of concert goers must have been located, eventually circling the entire block before realizing the error. He had been my personal choice to provide pictures of what my novice journalist instincts told me was going be a fiery concert, so ripe with electricity that the article would write itself. "Did you hear glass breaking outside?" he asked. "Yeah. A black cat jumped through a hearse window," I replied. "No shit?" "And I almost got run over by the Grim Reaper." "What?" "Forget it," I sighed. "Anyway," he said, "where is everybody? I brought the electric cattle prod you suggested. But I don't think we are going to need it tonight. Unless things pick up a bit." "Well," I said, "don't loose track of it. We might need to lick it a few times to keep ourselves awake. And if nothing else, I could walk up behind someone and jab the prod between their shoulder blades, so we could at least get some good action shots." "Good idea. I'll switch the power setting to 'moderate'. Make this sign when you're ready." The photographer held up two main fingers in a "v." For voltage, he explained, not peace. The man is ruthless in pursuit of a picture, destined to become a legend or convict. "Maybe you should call and warn the Texas Hammer," the photographer suggested. "He won't be happy if things continue at this pace." "Don't worry about him. I have a can of bear mace to calm him down if he goes haywire and enough pills to make even the Texas Hammer swallow his tongue." "What pills?" "You just watch for the signal, okay. Now go grab us a couple beers and meet me upstairs," I urged. "I don't have any money." The photographer nodded. With the pictures end settled, I took the carpeted stairs up into the anteroom to brood. Here I was, in arguably the hippest concert venue in the Twin Cities, on a lovely Thursday night, smack dab in the middle of one of the nation's largest universities, with upwards of ten thousand people-mostly young-within five miles, waiting for an impeccable rock band to play on a legitimate stage, and there are only twenty-three people who paid the measly five bucks to attend? It was very discouraging. Picking up a City Pages, I checked to see if there was another show sucking away concert goers elsewhere tonight. Nope. Nothing competitive was listed in the music calendar, unless Kenny Rogers can be taken seriously. My conceptions of Minneapolis as a musically orientated city were cast into the fire. I felt like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away at the last moment and lands, again, flat on his back with the wind knocked from his chest. 'Good grief, you twisted bitch. I can't stand the disappointment anymore. One of these times I'm going to kick you in the teeth.' ********** The Varsity Theatre is a truly beautiful venue, and a really terrible bar. This is the disadvantage of the theatre model. Unlike places such as The Turf Club, The Uptown, and the Hexagon Bar, nobody randomly goes into the Varsity Theatre to have thirteen or fourteen beers and see what develops. It's only draw is whatever happens to be playing on the large, professionally lit stage. That is it's great advantage: superior facilities, including the stage and it's lighting, impressive acoustics, and appealing decorum. Many big-time acts have graced the stage in the two years since the Varsity was renovated, packing in roughly a thousand or so ticket holders for some shows. But this particular night the Varsity attracted about as many customers as a shit-sandwich. "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth." --Sherlock Holmes It's doubtful whether any of the Varsity's bands would have benefited from better, or more, promotion at any other venue, let alone given the advantage of having their name shouldered prominently over a high traffic roadway. Typically, bands are responsible for the majority of promotional leg-work at any venue, unless they have the money for a crack publicist or major label backing. If you're not in one of the two percent of bands who fit this description, the number of tickets sold depends solely on your reputation and in-house marketing. Local bands reap what they sow, and so, the poor turn-out for tonight's show, sadly, must rest with the bands and unfortunately heaviest on the headliner: Bridge Club. In the world of headliners, ticket sales are the white whale to be dragged from the sea. Tonight the unsold tickets are the elephant in the room. I hesitate to imply Bridge Club can't draw a crowd. Several times I've seen them play to packed, sweaty rooms they have anchored like a four-ton anvil. And they have managed to craft a small following of loyal fans that they treat with utmost respect, although the fact remains, the last few shows I've attended have not been hot sellers with the public at large. Bridge Club is wavering, in terms of ticket sales, it seems, for reasons beyond my understanding. Whether this bothers Bridge Club, I can't say. They appeared to be taking it with a grain of salt. But the other bands have not drawn well tonight either. Economy Team, who were not listed on the theatre marquee, played to a handful of young fans that seemed to know the members personally. The third three-piece band on the bill, they seemed a bit lost on the Varsity's big stage, standing so far apart it was like three solo shows at once. Economy Team plays the kind of bland songs round-eyed college girls find pleasantly dangerous. Although they are electric and distorted, the sound was too small to fill the stage floor's sprawling emptiness. The guitarist was a hair tentative, relying heavily on the usual three string power chord crunch, yet he sang beautifully in a surprisingly strong voice that came off with confidence. But the band wasn't strong enough as a whole to reverse the rip-tide of boredom washing through the room. Economy Team doesn't have the intangibles needed to keep eyes glued to the stage-people just stood at bay and let the band ring the bell- though they do possess a boyish charm that would get all three laid if they performed at a Sadie Hawkins dance. For some reason The Future played next, despite the marquee and common sense. It was supposed to be the Death to Our Enemies slot, and the unannounced change threw me into temporary confusion. "These guys look just like The Future," I said to the bartender. "They are The Future," she said. "Is that a cattle prod?" "Ah... no. It's a new space aged bacteria detector. Pure science. I'm with the Health Inspector on a routine investigation. I'll need to have a beer please." "Do you want two?" "Why?" I asked. "Because you're holding up two fingers." Whoops. "Sure, give me two." The photographer lowered his camera and took one of the beers from my hand. "Almost," he said. "How did you pay for the beers?" "I'm with the Health Inspector, you dingbat. We don't need money." The most obvious thing about The Future is the drummer. A small bespectacled, unimposing figure walking through the venue, he becomes a giant menace the second he gets behind his kit, hammering the drums like a 400lb. Gorilla gone crazy on cocaine and wild moonshine. He is singularly worth the price of admission and the defacto front man of The Future. His drums thundered through The Varsity rattling the amber lampshades. He was everything I had remembered and more. As a band, The Future is at their best when they are building momentum. The arrangements of their songs incorporate several changes leading down a winding path that gets wider the further it travels. The songs feature a lone guitarist using a series of stuttering riffs to push the listener forward. The riffs are fairly basic, using spacing and timing between notes to create shape instead of complexity, or speed. A few well placed pauses in the songs serve to announce a sudden turn in the path, while the scowling bassist with a wickedly shaped bass rams his parts down the shoulder of the road like a bulldozer. Too often though, the pay-off at the song's peak is a loud, jangled mess. It's more confusing than it is a let down. The territory between point A and B is inspiring, and when The Future learns to get out of their own way, the music will unfurl like a giant sail and sweep them up the marquee. At present, they're a tad awkward between songs and need to tone down the sunglasses at night cliché. They are three young kids who look like they came straight from a model airplane convention and the compensating swagger and posturing is not convincing. But this is really just the beginning, and my guess is that The Future will catch stride after writing twenty or thirty more songs and shedding the baby fat. The Future will be really good-soon-and in the meantime we'll have to tolerate the bravado. When they were finished, I approached the bassist to ask for the set-list. "Excuse me. Do you have a copy of tonight's set list I could keep?" I may as well have asked for a unicorn. He grabbed his drink from the bar and went off muttering about gay bars. I wanted to run up from behind and whisper in his ear, "Meet me outside in five minutes." Hit him with a quick zap of negativity to get him back on his heels, so I could explain my request. 'Listen, man, I'm a journalist from Back Door Monthly and I dig your band.' But I figured it was too cruel to go dropping negativity on strangers; the night was black enough already. The last opener, for reasons of back stage politics, was Death to Our Enemies. Any band with an aggressive name, especially with "death" in it, should forbid the lead singer from wearing a sport coat. The message is confusing, and irony is not an appealing trait in rock bands. By the time they played, I was too far gone into depression to get worked up over the sport coat. Bridge Club was due up next and The Varsity was still painfully empty. The writing was on the wall: for a good time go somewhere else. I spent the entire DTOE set playing pool in the small upstairs room with my lawyer and the professional photographer. The Texas Hammer-my lawyer-is an action junkie and I had promised him a spectacular mess of non-stop, full-bore action tonight. When I found him at the Varsity, twitching at the bar, his eyes were bulged out like ping-pong balls and he was carrying a briefcase packed with an extra set of clothes. He grabbed me by the collar and started shouting into my face. 'What the hell happened here? You said this was the place to be tonight.' 'Well... ah... you see Hammer; I might have been a little misguided in my prediction. I mean, I really thought the floor would be covered in blood by now... fires, nightsticks, naked women... The whole works.' 'Charlie, you could wear a blindfold while plowing a dump truck through this place and never come close to breaking any bones. Who turned you into such a white-bellied pansy?' 'Do you think we could sue?' 'Hell yes. We'll nail em' to the wall with depositions and subpoenas. It's a god damn no-brainer. Just look at what you're trying to pass off as excitement. We'll grind whoever did this to you into raw hamburger.' 'Let's go upstairs and work out a strategy while we play pool,' I said. 'How much money do you have on you?' Like the other bands, Death to Our Enemies were totally electric, but with four members comprising the archetypal lineup-two guitars, bass and drums. Maybe there was a keyboard... hell, maybe there was a midget playing hubcaps... only about twenty-nine star-crossed ticket buyers have the solid facts and I'm not one of them. As stated, I was busy playing pool and nothing they did demanded I put down the cue and hurry to the stage. The music was predictable and nicely muffled by the pool room's walls, punctuated with the sharp clack of billiard balls colliding and angry shouts from the lawyer. But the DTOE music did provide a nice background soundtrack to some outstanding bank shots. I'd like to see them again, and do a better job of paying attention. They deserved another look, I think, at the right price. This kind of journalism isn't cheap. An industrial strength canister of bear mace will cost you minimum of forty dollars and the price of pills keeps going through the roof. I barely broke even on this assignment, factoring for expenses. On a side note: Never play pool with a lawyer; they will hang you with the rules if the balls won't fall into the pockets. My head is still spinning from all the legal mumbo-jumbo about calling last pocket and phantom cue-ball scratches. When Death to Our Enemies finished, I was called the loser, even though I'm fairly sure I made the most shots... maybe... Christ, I'm not even sure about that now-I have a vicious lawyer. He is an essential asset in this modern backwater era, and if you ever have a problem just prick the tip of your index finger; the man can smell a drop of blood from sixty miles upwind. ********* When the decks were cleared, I made my way back down to the stage floor. Bridge Club was running cords into amplifiers and tightening wing nuts on symbol stands. They lined up three abreast, with the drums up front in the middle, and effectively cut the stage down to a more intimate size-a shrewd decision. Bridge Club does a lot of the little things right. Detail is one of the reasons they have managed to crack the nut without a "hook" that is currently the increasing norm in local rock bands. Honesty is a virtue lost in the mad scramble of local bands trying to find a corner to fight out of. The stubborn reliance on honesty gives Bridge Club outsider status in the local rock scene. Accordingly, nobody should go to a Bridge Club show to be seen. You go to hear and fight to keep your head above water. The ever present hodgepodge of local insiders, who cast about the local rock circuit like well dressed vampires, find the lack of pandering oozing off stage makes Bridge Club a terrible vehicle to advance their uber-personas. It's hard to play cool when nobody plays along. The lack of insider buzz is one of the reasons I figured the band could use some honest press. All three members of Bridge Club are full-blown musicians who do not wear track suits, make-up or sunglasses on stage. It is easy to take them seriously based on looks alone. There is no sexy girl playing keyboards or singing vocals. None of the flash is needed and all the fat is trimmed. The Bridge Club act is timeless, three men relying solely on only their music and presence to carry the performance. I have always thought they would clean-up in places outside the stranglehold of Minneapolis insider cool. Final adjustments made, they launched into their set in the same determined manner as a laboring coal train pulling uphill out of station. Taking the stage after midnight, Bridge Club appeared a bit ragged from spending the previous five hours at the theatre trying to stay interested. Of the thirty-eight people who eventually watched the headliners perform, two were placid bartenders employed at the theatre and sixteen others were either friends or family-champions of their cause, including myself. The rest of the audience was members, or friends of the opening acts, with a slight scattering of the unaffiliated. It was easy to see the band initially couldn't get it cranked up for the show. There was no tension in the engine. It didn't seem fair that the few people who had never seen Bridge Club, paid to attend a show that lacked the band's authentic taste. And this gets into the "chicken or the egg" argument. Does the number of people in attendance determine the band's response, or is it the band that precedes the audience's reception? Strange territory; I tend to fall on the side of the argument that believes the audience is integral to the performance. Joe Werner is Bridge Club's principal songwriter and vocalist and sole guitarist. The band is essentially an extension of himself. He is a true talent who has become one of the better singers in local rock. His voice has become the fourth member of the band, adding emotion and melody where others use only raw strength. He has always been a premier guitarist. Joe is straight out of the front man mold-tall, lean, strikingly angular, standoffish-and he is adept at handling the role. I cannot remember ever seeing him step into the absurd or shy away from the cleansing spotlight. The word that comes to mind is bona-fide. Tonight he is wearing a blue t-shirt with a football player striding down the chest, blue jeans, and a shaggy haircut curling at the ends. He appears bored like the rest of us. Bill Rammer and Mike Koch comprise the rhythm section-the band's muscle. Bill is the bassist, and was once described by an astute friend as, 'probably a distant relative of James Brown" for the way he is prone to stagger about the stage. He has never gone into the splits or shouted "hot tub" into the microphone, not to mention his white skin or Italian heritage; the description is based more on the short slanting steps he makes and his tightly coiled posture. Bill is the most stylish member of the band and it's most casual persona. The man has social tact, a public grace that makes him eminently likable. The baseline in Bridge Club songs does not just tug along with the drums. The bass is played and the only mechanical urging is a gentle distortion from time to time. The trick is in the fingers, not the pedals. Notes drift up and down the fret-board with a purpose and style not often seen with other rock bassists. It's beauty is in it's compensation for the lack of a second guitar. Often the baseline is the melody you remember long after the song has ended. Hailing from Pittsburgh is Mike Koch, the grim-eyed drummer, who also plays in the Black Hearted Forrest. Mike is stoic as a drummer and as a person, the kind of man you don't want to double-cross unless you have a king-hell lawyer or a can of high-powered mace handy. He rarely speaks first, but has said some of the most poignant things I've ever heard. It doesn't take long to realize the man has a keen sense of perception, evidenced in his drumming, which is always precise, never flowery, and done with a reserved confidence familiar to military personnel. If he gets excited behind the drums it doesn't show, the nonchalance that rolls off him makes me almost positive Mike will live to be two-hundred years old. At the Varsity Theatre show both Mike and Bill are wearing collared, button down dress shirts, casual but suitable as work wear. And it strikes me, as they perform to the baleful audience, that this is indeed work. And there's the rub: the show was a job instead of a release. Bill's striped every man's shirt has sleeves cut above the elbow and Mike has dark blotches of sweat running from shoulder-blade to ass. Both have the familiar faces of men who have punched time-cards and are riding the clock until the whistle blows. On their left, Joe Werner is dutifully running through the songs with the same resignation in his eyes. I was watching a very good band, cast in the Shadow, trying to pull the Idea from the steel jaw of Reality. My own pearl of wisdom came to me as I watched Bridge Club plainly ripping through their songs to a few people who have seen it many times before: it is one thing to try and shove your music down the throat of innocent strangers who came to hear you with a sense of wanting, and a totally different thing to jerk-off for a room full of half-interested friends. This is exactly what this show amounted to: a handful of people who came to The Varsity out of personal relationships, not to hear a rock band per se. There was no one to indoctrinate and nothing to prove, only a perverse sense of isolation. A band with nothing to prove has a foot in the grave, and Bridge Club is smart enough to understand this axiom. It was clear, this night, they needed to change the scenery as soon as possible-to find innocent strangers and stretch their legs into the venues of foreign cities. Minneapolis had seen enough and turned it's back on the band for some mysterious reason. It was a sad thing to realize for someone who thought he was staring straight into the future when he first saw them burning up a stage two long years ago; sadder yet to watch the band bury their heads in the sand and keep playing into the late hours of a hopeless night. Bridge Club's music has been widely characterized locally as "garage rock." This is a back handed description, of sorts. What they play is straight-ahead rock songs, catapulted with searing guitar and galloping drums. The structures are deceptively simple, but never common, and the message is passed in the urgent tempo. Writers are loath to declare their style as anything but garage rock because it's an easy and simple way to dismiss a band who consistently delivers music that draws from across the spectrum: blues, psychedelic, alternative, pop, art rock, to heavy metal. It comes together on a rock and roll platform and is forthrightly presented as just that-rock and roll. Honest and Honorable. To shove them into the garage is to condemn The Rolling Stones, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Cars, Credence Clearwater Revival, Queens of the Stone Age, The Strokes, The Kinks... and on and on. The list of bands that Bridge Club could be compared against is mind-boggling. Maybe not so much in outright borrowed influences in sound, but in the distinct emotion and vibration they give off. The garage is actually one huge umbrella that sprouts from the belly of critics and never precisely defines anything. At one time it was an apt description of a movement in rock, but was never intended to be used as a sledgehammer definition like married or pervert. But most rock critics are lazy egg-sucking dogs with Bovine Fever who wouldn't know the business end of a guitar from a snow shovel. So it's hard for them to relate in human terms. I am worried about catching Bovine Fever, now that I'm a rock critic, but my pharmacist assures me there are pills for that too. Let's not drift too far here. The end is near. The wolves have eaten the door. Deadlines loom out of the night like giant razors... Even though the show was a bummer on all fronts, Bridge Club managed to find a little momentum a few songs into their set-list. It was the mark of professionals to keep from descending into half-assed parody, which would seem like the normal reaction for any performer given the paltry circumstance. "Don't Pretend," from their first full length album Summer of the Jackal, fell into it's swaggering charm and fueled the blistering "From Out the Furnace" which followed. The latter is a zigzagging ride of catchy riffs along a knock, knock, knocking of the kick drum. The songs came off sharply, sounding well defined on the Varsity's modern sound system. The vocals were clean, never muddled with the guitar and bass noise; something which often happens because Bridge Club plays iron-bending loud. The songs started to swell, climbing up into the colored fabric swashes swooping across the ceiling, cresting high above the tight band and crashing down like a wave on some desolate beach in the middle of nowhere. It was nice to hear them in a room equipped to handle their sound. Even if it was sparsely filled with familiar faces standing idly at stage front. The only sense of movement came from the thousand bits of light reflected off the disco ball swirling over the floor. Thank God for that disco ball, without it the crowd apathy would have been even more painfully obvious. Then toward the end, Joe Werner in a silver voice summed up the whole night supremely in the song "The Scene" off this year's release The Scorched Capsule: ...this scene is dumb, I think we're done. It's time to start over... over again. A few minutes later they were done, quietly turning off the amplifiers and breaking down their gear. There was no sense in an encore, time to start over, indeed. One man was recording the show on a hand held video camera from in front of the stage, and if framed correctly, the tape won't show the lackluster crowd standing idly in anticipation of the end. It will capture the band alone, grinding away under the stunning stage lights, sweating, beating, lashing out like a thunderstorm. I'll bet it's a damned fine tape, and I would like to see if it confirms my suspicion that the show is better on television than it was in person. Years from now, I suspect someone will watch that tape and wonder what happened to those guys with a head full of steam and a sound like the voice of God. Well... maybe not God... Hercules? Whatever is right. ********** I drifted outside the theatre behind a few people trying to pick up on their impressions of the show. The chatter was less than glowing. Everyone seemed to understand this was a failure of some kind. On the sidewalk outside the theatre, a young kid with a carefully ruined haircut asked me who had played tonight. He was pushing a bicycle down the street with an armload of books, heading home from an evening at the campus library. His simple question made me realize that I was embarrassed for Bridge Club; the woeful turn-out bit into my pride. I had lost neutrality in terms of the band. It was, I realized, because Bridge Club is the epitome of my musical convictions. I was taking the night personally; their success or failure had become my own. 'Bird Claw.' I told him. 'Are they any good?' 'Yeah,' I replied. 'You should have seen it.' He paused for a second, checking out the thin stream of people walking out of the Varsity, and then pushed on into the night. My lawyer had long ago fled the Varsity in search of action. Two days later his secretary sent a four digit bill on expensive stationary. Under services rendered it read: "Three hours of wasted time and forty minutes of consultation regarding the formation of a lawsuit against undetermined parties." I mailed the invoice back to his offices with my own inscription scrawled in sheep's blood on the back: "Who do you think you are? Johnny Cochran? Perry Mason? I'm a journalist, you harebrained wolverine, not a financier. How am I supposed to pay for this? The next time you send me a bill like this, I'm coming to your office with a rack of billiard balls and every intention of making you eat each stinking one." The professional photographer left when it became clear there was no sense in taking pictures of a band with it's pants pulled down. "This is depressing," he said. "I'm going to go home and stick my head in the oven." "You should illegally download a copy of Bridge Club's latest CD as one last shot in the band's kidney before your final farewell," I added. "That sounds about right," the photographer said. "I'll send you tonight's pictures as soon as possible." "Good. We are dealing with crucial deadlines here." He closed shop and fled the Varsity, forgetting the cattle prod still tucked in my waistband. The show was over, I was back alone standing under the marquee on a beautiful starry night, scribbling down my impressions in a notepad and wondering where it all went wrong. I was attempting, in my notes, to chalk up the show as a predictable irregularity; something that had no real significance in terms of the long run. I wanted to believe Bridge Club had only stubbed their toe on the way to something bigger and brighter. They are too good to slide into the crowded cemetery of bands that broke down trying to get over the hump. If I just changed a few of the unimportant facts, left the crowd out of the writing, and pussy-footed around the truth, I could write a glowing review. It felt imperative that Bridge Club finally receive some good press and I was determined to write this show as a success. Then a young girl, who would normally be considered pretty, came out of the darkness, walking past the theatre crying. She was stumbling down the street with her hands over her eyes and tears rolling down her cheeks. In a strange way, it was beautifully orchestrated revelation. The young girl's uncontrolled sobs said everything my notes never could. For the second time that night, the whirling tumblers dropped into place: sorrow was a symptom of the haunting shadow. Honesty is the answer. Mace was the cure. ********** The next afternoon I called Bill Rammer for his thoughts on the Varsity Show. I wanted the perspective of one of the main participants-a view from the stage. Maybe he could explain why the show was such a downer, or at least assure me it wasn't something to take seriously. "Hello." "Hey Bill, this is Charlie. Do you have a few minutes?" "Sure, I have some time. I'm on the way to spend the weekend with my sister in Milwaukee." "So you're fleeing the state. It was that bad, eh?" "What was?" "The show." "What show?" "Your show at the Varsity Theatre last night." "It wasn't one of the best. But I'm not fleeing." "Did you know there was a girl crying outside the theatre after the show?" "I heard." "She was heart-broken. I think it was your fault." "Was it that bad? I thought it was because some maniac let off a mace bomb." "No?" "Yeah. Set the thing off right outside the exit after the show. And a guy was electrocuted." "With what?" "I don't know. A Taser gun or something." "Is he okay?" "I guess so. Fried him pretty good though. I saw one of his friends dragging him by the ankle, away from the rush of people running for their lives. His shirt had a big burn between the shoulder blades." "Who did it?" "They think it was the Health Inspector." "Sounds awful." "It was a real mess. Total confusion. You're lucky you missed it. It took about an hour for the mace to clear. There were lots of people crying. Who was the girl you saw? Was she upset about our performance?" "No. Actually, she was coming out from a bar down the street. I don't think it had anything to do with you... but... well it was something of a sign. I'd never seen her before. Did they get a description of the Health Inspector?" "Not really. The guy who got shocked only saw pair wobbly knees; whoever it was slipped away into the shadows." "Is that what they said, 'slipped away into the shadows?'" "Yeah." "How perfect." "What?" "I said, is it hard to get fired up for a show when you're playing only to familiar faces? This seems to be happening a lot lately." "You know, we like that our friends come to the shows. It's cool to play for them, but yeah, I'd prefer to play to room full of strangers. Last night's show was kind of like playing at a party. Playing shows to the same faces tend to rob some of the energy." "Why was there nobody at the show? The theatre was pretty empty." "Yeah, it was. I don't know Charlie; sometimes we're a tough draw for reasons I'm not really sure about." "Maybe everyone went to see Kenny Rogers." "Who?" "Kenny Rogers, the Gambler." "You think it was because of Kenny Rogers that nobody... Charlie, what have you gotten into?" 'Nothing... nothing... just a few benzodia... um... it's the Bovine Fever, nothing to worry about. My lawyer has got a handle on it." ********** Set-List for Bridge Club The Varsity Theatre 08/31/06 Starving Through the Night Zurkis Don't Pretend From Out the Furnace Parsec Lock Ness On the Take The Scene Last Year's Prom It's a Shame 5000lb. Bombs By Charlie Vaughan.