Wanda Comes Home
Words and Images by Joe Beine
Varve Noise - The Varve at the Stud
8/31/82, San Francisco
(from Local Anesthetic, September 1982)
by Joe Beine
I stand in a small rectangular club with a tiny stage set up in the corner. In the center is a long oval shaped, two sided bar. On each side of the bar, there are two TV screens up on shelves. The DJ plays Roxy Music and New Order. And in another corner a few dancers have paired off. The place is filled with people, an odd mix of straights and gays, and assorted new wave types, trying to look trendy. It's almost impossible to move and the management is still letting people in. Most of the crowd is here to see Translator, whose debut LP was recently released on the local 415 label via CBS. But I'm here to see the opening act, The Varve, a transplanted, all female, former Denver/Boulder band. Each member has scores of fun quirks and the blend produces some of the oddest, most twisted sounds ever to emerge from a rock and roll group. Their song titles sum this up perfectly, "Erotic Frigidaire," "The Twitch," "Mondo Condo," and "Bamboo Curtain."
The Varve take the stage and are immediately well received by a very enthusiastic crowd. I manage to make my way up front for a closer look. Lead singer, Jo Ann, wearing a white fringed-covered dress and leopard cowboy boots (I can't even begin to describe her hairstyle) plays occasional screeching, halting and sometimes even melodic saxophone solos between her vocal spots. She sings and yelps and tosses out lyrics in a language from another planet that's not even in this solar system. People actually come up to her after gigs and ask her what language she sings in.
Recently wed Sue on bass and dressed in black impresses me as the best instrumentalist of the group, pushing out a solid foundation for the others to build on and bounce off of. Somehow she manages to hold everything together, mixing solid rhythms with occasional, brilliant loops and runs.
On guitar is Carolyn. She plays the strangest chords. On her head is a thick mop of yellow hair in complete disarray. The word "Varve" is imprinted on her guitar strap. She stares constantly at the fret board with her mouth open as if she is perplexed at the odd noises she is creating. Well I'm perplexed too. And amazed.
Behind this strange trio is drummer Kat, the newest member of the group, acquired after their arrival in S.F. nearly two years ago. She's solid, tight and mixes with Sue perfectly.
And at the other end of the stage, tiny blonde Kelli, wearing a sleeveless black t-shirt, stands behind a huge keyboard playing twisted little figures and short riffs and slides. She backstops the others and fills out the sound.
The sum of all this is something I've never been able to describe to anyone who's never seen the group. It's Varve Music. It's funny. It's danceable. It's weird. At times it seems to make no sense. Other times it seems as though it should collapse into cacophony, but almost magically, it doesn't. These girls somehow manage to bring together what appears to be opposing musical sounds into a unique, cohesive noise.
I've seem them off and on throughout their two and a half year history and I've always been impressed by their wild enthusiasm and almost crude amateurish approach. It was as if five very different, high spirited, girls walked into a room filled with instruments, formed a huddle to decide who should play what, then proceeded to form a noise. A bit ragged at first but very original, and best of all, a whole lot of fun to be part of. But tonight, they are far from crude, far from amateurish. They've grown and their music has grown with them. They've redefined the noise, pushing it to new limits. Their new material is exactly that, new. It's not merely an extension of what they've already accomplished,. This is a band that's matured without losing any of their original enthusiasm and uniqueness. And I'm enjoying myself, watching and listening to all of this controlled lunacy.
The audience seems to enjoy them too and the band looks great on the fuzzy TV screens above the bar.
And best of all, the band seem to be enjoying themselves. Jo Ann dances, shakes and smiles. I recall her wild pogo-ing past in Denver (where she got the cowboy boots.) Sue sways with the rhythm she helps propel. Carolyn gawks at her guitar in disbelief. Kat nudges at the others with her controlled no-nonsense drumming. And Kelli looks coolly nonchalant, occasionally smiling, but most concentrating on her playing.
Near the end of their closing number, the silly but fun, "Mondo Condo," an obvious classic, the band stops playing and abruptly, Jo Ann lifts one arm into the air, then brings it down, cueing the band for a beat. They go through these several times at varying intervals till the end of the song. The crowd loves it and brings them back for a well-deserved encore. And it's obvious to me that not everyone came to see Translator.
After the show, I express my amazement to various band members and tell them I enjoyed it. Carolyn says, "You only say we're good because you know us." OK, so I'm a Varve groupie...
Later I hear someone comment, "They sure ain't the Go-Go's." They may not be the Go-Gos, but I sure hope they never stop making their strange and quirky Varve noise.
It Feels Good to Sweat - Varve Images
by Joe Beine
(from Local Anesthetic, February 1983)
There are lights. Red, amber, blue and white. Their heat and brilliance pour down onto a small stage where a group of five musicians, all of them women, are playing music. The lights leap, bounce, dance. Occasionally certain lights are dimmed to emphasize one single color, but usually they are blended to merge the colors, creating an eerie, ever changing glow.
A dance floor stretches before the stage, cluttered with an assortment of people. Some of them dance. Others watch eagerly. On one side and in back of the dance floor people sit at tables, sipping drinks, relaxing, listening. Many of them are standing on their chairs. Their interest has been aroused, their curiosity. Five women are on the stage, blending five distinct noises into a sound as colorful and as rapidly changing as the lights above them. And people are dancing. People are staring. People are having a good time.
These five women, who call themselves the Varve, bounced into Denver in mid-autumn for a brief weekend visit, during two shows, the first at the Mercury Cafe on Nov. 12 and the second at the Boulder Theater, the following night. After they left I scribbled down some notes about their stay, their music and the five individuals that comprise the Varve, all of whom are friends of mine (although I really don't know drummer Kat, who joined after the rest of them moved to San Francisco a little over two years ago). Somehow, I managed to transform those notes into this article.
There's something very difficult about trying to describe Varve music. It's much more than just taking the five individual elements, tossing them into a shaker and emptying the contents. All I can offer is a brief glimpse of the way I perceive those elements and hope they might reveal a bit of the spirit that ignites the Varve sound. But remember, the colors merge.
At the back of the stage sits drummer Kat surrounded by an assortment of suspended circular shapes that glitter in the multi-hued glow. Her drumsticks are a wild yellow blur; she herself is a blur, punching out Varve rhythms with precision, speed and soul. Kat drumming is like this: smash, riot, purr, boom, meow. She also adds some nice vocal harmonies to a couple of songs, most notably on "Silkwood." I decide she is a Siamese cat, mysterious, aloof.
I have a Varve flyer from November, 1980 announcing a gig at Haight Street's Le Disque. It shows a photograph of open mouthed Kat looking playfully sly and Siamese. She's wearing a torn t-shirt and holding a knife against her tongue. What's the matter? Kat got your tongue?
And now I get to describe Carolyn. Oh God! Strange sounds emerge from this woman's guitar. She plays like a naughty school girl on speed, open mouthed, tousled yellow hair falling in her face, right hand pulverizing the strings, left hand leaping joyously across the fretboard. She has a broad grin, gray eyes and a look of delighted astonishment always on her face as if life is a whimsical surprise, gift wrapped and torn open for her again and again day after day.
Carolyn is capricious, insane and endearingly funny. I like the way she exaggerated slightly when describing the band's soon to be legendary 36 hour trek from SF to Denver. She said, "we went through 47 blizzards, with 12 people in this little van." Now I know there were only three blizzards and eight people in the van -- along with the drums and amps and clothes and the rest of the equipment. "And the heater didn't work and the chains kept coming off the wheels and ..."
But, hey, they made it!
Sue is the bass player. She plays with self-assurance, enthusiasm. She has an inquisitive gaze and a splash of short bright red hair covering her head. There's a stylish easy going spark to her manner. She manages to seem relaxed in the tensest situations. She's the Varve's anchor, spinning vibrating spider webs that entangle the others.
Sue personifies her bass strings, makes the alive: four taut creatures set in motion by her wildly inventive imagination. And fingers....
According to Sue in order quit the Varve a band member must go through a ridiculously complicated procedure involving a two year written notice, notarized in the city where the band was formed. Sue said, "somebody will get frustrated or mad and want to quit. By the time we finish explaining to them what they have to go through to leave the band -- the two year written notice etc., -- they settle down and say forget it." Once a Varve, always a Varve.
As a singer, Jo Ann transforms the sounds of the English language into a tricky blur of hiccups, vocal acrobatics and occasional screams. Almost ironically she has a delightful unspoiled look about her as if her demeanor is locked away in perpetual girlhood. But she's hardly a little girl. For me it's difficult to separate the impression I have of Jo Ann when I first met her four years ago from my impression of her now. Back then, in the summer of 1978, when the Buzzcocks ruled with "Love You More" and the word "hardcore" referred to pornography, the hottest band in the Denver area was the now legendary Jonny III. Jo Ann was their biggest fan. She went to every gig and danced with impassioned craziness to every song. Without her that legend would be slightly tarnished. The wild scene that sprang up then was sparked in part by her energetic movement and her wondrous, wild-eyed, punk rock meets romance personality. Two years later she was in the Varve. Lead vocals. Saxophone. Same dance. Same style.
If Varve motion is driven by Kat, turned upside down by Carolyn and anchored deftly by Sue, then Jo Ann punches it in the face. And the circle is filled in and completed by Kelli. Kelli plays the keyboard: a large, baffling (to me anyway) Korg synthesizer that long ago replaced her Farfisa. She has soft features colored by a quiet glow. The bangs of her short yellow hair laugh at her eyebrows and scurry daringly just above her brown eyes. There's not much I can say about her stage presence. She looks all at once enthusiastic/bored, happy/sad -- a pair of paradoxes. Her hands play hide and go seek with the keyboard, producing sounds that whir, jump and twist. I especially like her bouncy staccato blips on "Frictional Drag" and her sliding backdrop to "Bamboo Curtain."
I remember vividly my early encounters with Kelli near the beginning of 1980. She wore a worn brown leather jacket and sparkling white shoes. She worked at a record warehouse. I worked at a record store. One day we were talking.
"Hey," she said, "guess what? I'm in a band."
"Really?" I looked at her, feeling a bit surprised and curious.
"It's all girls. I'm going to be the keyboard player."
"Do you know how to play?"
"Not really but I got this used farfisa. It's too cool. I'm teaching myself. I've already got some songs worked out."
I decided she was completely crazy and I was rapidly growing rather fond of her. I was the one that was crazy.
I took an immediate interest to what she was saying. In a band? I said "I'll be your first fan, ok?" She laughed, "You'll probably be our only fan."
Well, three years have passed since then. Gone are Kelli's white shoes. Someone stole her leather jacket. And I'm certainly not the Varve's only fan. At the Mercury, they skipped and bounced through an hour long set, urged on by a crazy astounded perplexed perspiring audience that consisted of Varve fans old and new. A few of those people hadn't seen them perform in over two years and most had never seen them at all. I'd say the band were very deserving of the wild applause and ecstatic yells that burst forth between each song. They went through a lot to get here and I don't just mean the 36 hours on the road through 47 blizzards with 12 people in a tiny stuffed van. It's been over two years of endless rehearsals and gigging in San Francisco. And their spirit and exuberance have kept them going and brought them this far. The music has matured; the sound has grown. They move it increasingly onward with intensity, color and just the right touch of whimsy and madness. They're playing together as a band better than ever before and at the same time they allow each other the right amount of freedom to assert their own individual personalities through the music. Their almost year old record, a delightful three song EP, which contains enough of the Varve spark to make it endlessly appealing, was finally released. And they came back to Denver in triumph to show the old fans what they've accomplished in those two years. And to show the newer fans how fun it all is. Only Kat has never been to Denver before and I think she was amazed.
When the band came back on stage for a three song encore, ending with the screaming "Mondo Condo," Sue said to the wild audience, "this is really great. We came through freezing cold and blizzards and all sorts of trouble to get here."
Kat added, "it feels good to sweat."
Yeah, and it feels so good to have the Varve back in Denver.
The Boulder Theater show the next night was less of a success due to the lackluster response of the audience -- c'mon Boulder wake up! -- but a handful of determined lunatics danced wildly. And for some reason four odd little things stuck out in my mind: Jo Ann's little sideways strut/dance across the stage, Kelli's two-tone outfit: black pants/white shirt; one of Kat's drumsticks, which she tossed in the air after "Mondo Condo," hitting the black curtain behind the stage, and the loading of the snow covered Varve van in the icy darkness behind the theater after the show.
Well they made it back to San Francisco, according to Carolyn, in record time with no snow. They promise to return later this year. In the meantime, buy their record. Play it for your friends. Have fun. As for myself, well I'm eagerly looking forward to the next two years of Varve growth, Varve motion and Varve style.
...the lights are silent, cold. The stage is dark, the dance floor still. But in the darkness unseen shadows emerge and re-enact the motion, the dance.
For the Varve, that color is a very unique blend of Kat's wild energy, Carolina's quirky insanity, Sue's self-assurance, Jo Ann's little girl/grown woman glow and Kelli's paradoxical nature.
I'd say it's a very unique blend indeed.
Wanda Goes Home - the Varve - Previous Page
photographs by Joe Beine
Mercury Cafe/Denver, 12 November 1982
Boulder Theater Sign, 13 November 1982
all material © Joe Beine Contact
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