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The Vinyl Solution

With techno booming from every ESPN promo and truck commercial on the air, it would be easy to assume that electronic music is the only sound capable of getting Nineties kids on their feet. But Gary Norris and Patrick Robinson know better. These vinyl-crazed young men have built a sizable...
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With techno booming from every ESPN promo and truck commercial on the air, it would be easy to assume that electronic music is the only sound capable of getting Nineties kids on their feet. But Gary Norris and Patrick Robinson know better. These vinyl-crazed young men have built a sizable following by spinning quirky selections that have little in common with the trance-inducing grooves of today's dance hits.

"In the house scene, it's about a rhythm," Robinson says. "And even though I don't mind beat music, I have trouble connecting to it. I respect beat-mixing and DJs who create a rhythm ambience and control the room. But we're playing songs, and we don't really consider ourselves DJs."

Instead, Norris and Robinson see themselves as record collectors who are able to share their latest finds with Denver clubbers. At "Burn-Out," a Saturday event at the Skylark Lounge, and "Heliosphear," Tuesdays at the Streets of London Pub, they offer up an eclectic sonic array, with mod, freakbeat, surf, soundtrack and punk all considered fair game. On the surface, this blend might seem confusing, but in Norris's opinion, "The crowd gets it. They somehow know that this all goes together. We're not just playing one kind of music; we're mixing it up. And people are really appreciating it."

Adds Robinson, "In a way, we're reappropriating America's disposable culture."

The pair met while working together at Twist & Shout's defunct outlet at the Tivoli, Metropolitan State College's student center. They soon discovered a mutual passion for a wide variety of genres, including what Robinson describes as "the Sixties sound--that garage sound. You recognize it as the basis of where so much music comes from. It's a basic sound--a four-four beat, a simple guitar, a constant bass, a drumbeat and someone who just wants to sing. It doesn't matter if they're good at it or not."

"It has its R&B roots, it has its blues roots, it has its country roots," Norris points out. "It's very rootsy stuff, and that's why it's stuck around. There have always been garage bands."

Equally cherished by the twosome is lounge music, a style that has virtually nothing in common with the garage sound. "A huge part of my record collection are my easy-listening and cocktail records that I started thrifting many years ago," Robinson says. "A lot of the swinger music that I'm into started when easy-listening artists started fusing rock elements into their music. A lot of it is bad, and it's insulting both to rock and jazz, but at that point, the music becomes beautiful because it's so bad, it's good. And I don't even mean for its kitsch value, because that would be laughing at it. Aesthetically, I think it's beautiful music because it's not being pretentious jazz or tough rock; it's a mix of both."

The opportunity to share these sounds with the public came courtesy of Matt Hunt, who runs a production company called Burn Denver Burn Presents. He ran into Norris during a bus ride and asked him to contribute to a space-rock night he was promoting at Seven South--and when Norris arrived at the club, he was surprised to discover that Robinson had also been recruited. The chemistry between them proved so strong that even after the Seven South experiment fizzled out, they stuck together. Hunt subsequently moved a new version of the concept to the Skylark, a venerable neighborhood bar that has been remodeled into a rockabilly-era hipster hangout. The setting there proved to be ideal for "Burn-Out"--and the stars of the show work hard to enhance it.

"We put out red velvet, and we candle the whole area up or bring in some string lights," Norris says. "And I might bring my picture of a big horse. Okay, we're not performing like a band; we're just playing our records. But it is a performance, in a way."

Their approach to the music of "Burn-Out" is just as creative. "The neat thing about the Skylark is that we have a free hand to play what we want," Norris allows. "We can start up with something mellow, like Lulu or April March--that Sixties pop sound. Then we'll move into something a little heavier, like some garage moving into punk. And we'll throw in some R&B, some blues. I've even brought some Lenny Dee albums in, for crying out loud. He's just taking rock songs and putting them on the Wurlitzer and the Hammond organ."

The fun the duo has translates to the Skylark crowd, an intriguing melange of urbanites and bar-hoppers who dress as smartly as the night-stalkers at a rave. The numbers of such patrons are growing, in part because, as Robinson confirms, "it's music for drinking." But Norris believes another important factor is the relaxed mood he and his accomplice conjure up.

"I think there is a huge crowd that, unfortunately, doesn't go out to the clubs," he says. "They stay home and listen to their music--and that's a lot like me. I tend to be very social, but I can't stand the clubs in Denver and, frankly, I don't go. So I hit the small bars."

Plenty of others do as well--enough, anyway, to justify the creation of "Heliosphear" at the Streets of London Pub, another increasingly popular venue. To keep up with these demands, Robinson and Norris are constantly supplementing their libraries with fresh treasures purchased at the used-record stores and thrift shops they love to visit. "The records we have are rare," Robinson says. "It doesn't have anything to do with an egotistical thing. It's more like, 'Look, I have this, and I want you to hear it.' It's a childhood excitement."

Norris agrees. "In my house, I have a wall of records, and collecting them is a very competitive thing that people take very seriously. It's all about who's going to get to the record store first to find these certain albums." People who come up to him at gigs "wonder where we get these records," he says, "but it's not that difficult. The collectors have a good deal right now; it's easy to find great records, because no one is looking for them. People have no idea how many of these records I picked up at ARC for 50 cents."

Other items owned by the partners include recent reissues of forgotten tunes: "We wouldn't have the ability to do what we are doing if it wasn't for compilation labels," Norris admits. But they draw the line at compact discs. For them, it's vinyl or nothing.

"CDs almost encourage you to not pay attention to the music you are listening to," Robinson claims. "But a record is paper and plastic, essentially. That's all you've got there, so you can't just throw it around. But you can see the groove, and you can see how long the cut is. It's quick and easy access. You're directly connected to the medium, to a certain extent."

"For me, records are like books," Norris says. "You have to pull them out of the sleeve and place them on the turntable. You have the artwork there in front of you. It's a nice process--it's almost Zen-like."

So, too, is the "Burn-Out" team's mellow alternative to typical nightlife. "In the Fifties and Sixties, and really until commercial disco hit in the early Seventies, people would buy records to create a certain scene that they wanted in their living room if they had people over," Norris maintains. "The records were produced with that in mind. And that's what we're trying to do--to create an atmosphere where people can enjoy this kind of thing in a way that they just can't get at home."

DJs Gary Norris and Patrick Robinson. "Burn-Out," 9 p.m. Saturdays, Skylark Lounge, 58 Broadway, 303-722-7844; "Heliosphear," 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Streets of London Pub, 1501 East Colfax Avenue, 303-861-9103.

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