On a one to 10, with half points, here's how the gala debut of Utopia--the first real attempt to translate underground dance culture into a legal, nightclub setting in the Valley--scored in the following critical areas:
Resident DJ R.C. Lair started spinning around 10 and, intelligently, cast a wide net. His set was Goldilocks and the Three Bears--not too hard, not too soft . . . just right for a mixed crowd of "shut up and dance" ravers and electronic-music virgins. The first time R.C. tried to drop in some serious bass, it sounded like a train wreck, but I don't know if that was his bad or the sound man's. Regardless, subsequent attempts to give the crowd a chakra massage were appreciatively more successful. R.C. kept his floor full from 11 p.m. on, and deftly stacked the energy until the crowd was pumped for Electric Skychurch at 1.
A live house-music collective from Los Angeles, Skychurch was awesome. Lots of powerful tribal rhythms via hand percussion and warm, crystalline female vocals soaring over the top of flowery, trancey synth loops ("dreamcatcher" live was simply transcendental). The headline talent for the next three weeks of Utopia is strictly superstar DJs (Aldo Bender 2.14, Chris Fortier 2.21 and my man John Kelley 2.28), but hopefully the club will keep booking live acts. Dubtribe, maybe, or Critters Buggin. BTW--if Utopia should remain a Keoki-free zone, you won't read any complaints in this space.
Potent speaker stacks smoothly transmitted the music to practically any point in the 1,200-square-foot multitiered space. That's a neat trick. However, the sheer volume made bassheading--standing directly in front of the speakers or pressing your body against them to really let your mind swim in the groove--a torturous exercise in frustration for anyone who tried, and many did. Suggestion--an auxiliary speaker stack located away from the primary dance floor; sort of a designated bassheading area. Touches like that--courteous nods to authentic rave culture--will give this experimental hybrid club the subterranean cachet it needs to survive.
Tasty eye candy was served on four giant, wall-size multimedia screens, and at least six smaller (big-screen-TV-size) ones, each displaying a different sequence of images. I saw everything from old-school, electric Kool-Aid acid test amoeba collages to early '90s style, full-auto icon blitzes to high-budget clay animation. The best, though, was the Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk cityscapes. On the critique tip--the dance-floor lighting was way too bright and way too Eurotrash discothequey. Tone it down and trip it out, por favor. Further points off for letting one of the giant screens go blank for 20 or 30 minutes, except for the word "muted" fluctuating in purple in the upper-right corner. Muted is, like, such bad vibe concept, you know, man?
Chill Areas: 9.5
Comfy, comfy. Even when Utopia was packed at the peak around 1:30 or 2, you could always find a plush place to sit or lie down for a spell. Nice work with the candelabra, incense and plentiful tables as well. And the bean-bag room behind the multimedia screen just to the right front of the dance floor was a brilliant little niche. I could spend hours in there. Wait--I did spend hours in there.
First of all, the guards weren't packing, and that's good, because guns taint the mood for me every time. Secondly, they were generally courteous and unobtrusive. Two things, though: There's no need to point and laugh at people getting lost in one another on a corner couch. That will happen at an underground club. Get used to it. Also, can't somebody do something about all those fools who just hang out in the parking lot of a club to sweat women coming out? It made the transition from Utopia to reality a little harsh.
Overall Ambiance: 8.5
Final comments: The men's room attendant was well-stocked, and a damn fine conversationalist. Fun, fun, fun to walk into a rest room and walk out three minutes later with some scented oil, six peppermints, a clove cigarette and three new jokes. Last complaint: Don't announce "last call for alcohol," monster-truck-rally style, over the PA at five to 1. It chops off the flow like a guillotine, and is disrespectful to the DJ and the dancers.
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FYI: The original Utopia is a world-famous rave club in Las Vegas that puts its Valley counterpart (the first branch outside Sin City) to shame. That's fair. Obviously, the Utopia here is just getting started, and should only get better. The owners and promoters have signed a six-month lease with the owners of Tribeca Dance Club to turn the space at Scottsdale Road and McDowell into a rave club every Friday night. However, there's a clause that either party can break the deal after 60 days. So we're now one week into a crucial, eight-week test run.
Underground dance clubs thrive in San Francisco, L.A., Seattle, New Orleans, Vegas and, of course, NYC. But can the Valley sustain a nightspot this far out on the edge and, arguably, aesthetically sophisticated? Could be the few dozen mullet-cut meat marketers who stood around scoping the rave girls will refuse to go away (Guys, you will get no play in a club like this. Go back to Jetz. Shoo.) and even multiply in number. That would suck. Could be this Friday (2.14) will be dead, with The Works boasting deep dish and an all-star lineup of local talent and Swell Records throwing a large, underground rave the next night. Or could be that last Friday was the dawn of a fresh, progressive era in the Valley club scene. Regardless, it'll be good to see how this hand plays. Deal me in.
David Holthouse is now wired.
The Web site is Mothership. The address is www.phoenixnewtimes.com/extra/holt/index.html. The options are myriad (multigenre criticism, archives, rave data, freak links).