Solar Cathedral 15 Year Anniversary
Hawkeye Downs Speedway and Expo Center — Friday, May 15 at 8:30 p.m.
Throughout the ‘90s, rave parties became a pop-culture phenomenon — including the infamous, laughable ‘rave’ shown in Beverly Hills 90210 — and a target for tabloid media and law enforcement hysteria. Rave culture flourished in the Midwest, as far-flung ravers connected over AOL and the nascent internet. People would learn about events in neighboring states and travel hundreds of miles to stay up all night and dance, and then take turns sleeping on the way home.
Local DJ, producer and promoter Matt Rissi connected with the Iowa scene in the mid-1990s, attending the now-legendary Digital Perceptions events put on by Rissi’s friend and occasional musical collaborator Coleman Greenhaw. Rissi caught the DJing bug and began playing parties soon afterwards. (Full disclosure, Kent Williams was in the Rotation crew that did dance events at Gabe’s in the ‘90s and booked Matt and Coleman.)
Starting in 2000, Rissi began producing his own events. “I wanted to play on big sound systems, but I didn’t want to have to hit up promoters or ask people to put me on,” he said. “I just wanted to make it happen for myself.”
Using the name “Solar Cathedral Productions,” Rissi started out with DIY dance parties, eventually building an audience and graduating to large-scale events with hundreds of loyal fans.
“Fifteen years later, here we are, where we’ve come from keg parties and folding tables to a full-scale concert event with big flying line array sound systems and light installations,” Rissi said.
It will have the vibe of a reunion … current crop of neo-ravers with the old-school dance veterans.
Solar Cathedral is known for its series of Halloween, New Year’s Eve and Pornstar’s Ball parties. The Pornstar’s Ball events grew naturally out of using Cedar Rapids’ gentleman’s clubs as venues; they were the only venues licensed to stay open past 2 a.m. It was also natural to include the club’s showgirls. In the context of a mixed audience — straight and gay, male and female — they were a sensual visual addition instead of being solely the focus of male prurience.
Rissi’s events — presented in licensed venues with uniformed security — are a long way from the outlaw raves of the ’90s, or the gigantic cake-throwing spectacles of today’s EDM festivals. Musically, Solar Cathedral events focus on current underground techno and house music. The DJs and performers who’ve been featured in Solar Cathedral events (like Speedy J and Chris Liebing duo performance as ‘Collabs,’ DJ Hyperactive, DVS1 and Hoodtek), are usually only familiar to only those already in the techno scene.
Unfortunately, though Solar Cathedral has a great record for safe, orderly events, the Cedar Rapids Police Department and city council have been less than enthusiastic about all-night dance parties.
“We had some noise complaint issues out at the Lumberyard [a Cedar Rapids gentleman’s club],” Rissi said. “But it’s zoned industrial, so we fought the police about an illegal 24-hour decibel restraint that we weren’t breaking. And they let us go all night. But the following year when they saw us there again, they decided to go in and talk to the venue owners and urge them to not work with me.”
By invoking an old city ordinance prohibiting dancing on Sundays and past 1 a.m. the rest of the week, and also threatening venues with a “nuisance” status that would accrue fines every time officers were called out, the CRPD and city council have jeopardized Rissi’s ability to put on parties.
“The CRPD and the city council are all over my shit. They are trying to find out where I’m doing shows next and contacting those venue owners to talk them out of working with me,” said Rissi. “But I have good relations with the venue owners. They know that a techno party is not a rave like it used to be. They just hear the word ‘rave,’ and they immediately think of the liability and the drugs. But I want to put on a legitimate event that is legal and safe for all of my patrons, and they’re making it hard for me to do that.”
Despite his difficulties with the police, Rissi has been able to organize a 15th anniversary party for Solar Cathedral productions at the Hawkeye Downs Speedway and Expo Center on May 15, headlined by Berlin act Pan-Pot.
“They’re big-deal guys who very rarely play the United States,” said Rissi. “For this leg of their North American tour, they’re only playing Montreal, Toronto, New York City and Cedar Rapids.”
Pan-Pot’s performances blur the line between live performance and DJing. They are known for bass heavy, slinky minimal techno, which on a big sound system becomes as much a physical experience as a musical one. Their tracks have techno’s trademark repetitive music figures set against a restless soundscape of abstract crackles and fizzing sound, with each drum hit defining a different reverberant space.
Coleman Greenhaw (aka AGC3) is also performing. Coleman has moved to California, but is flying back to participate. A mainstay of the Iowa City dance music scene for almost 20 years, his performance will in ways be a reunion with several hundred of his closest friends.
Like previous Solar Cathedral events, the 15 year celebration will have an overwhelming audio-visuals, with music purpose-built to make you want to dance. But more than that, it will have the vibe of a reunion, pulling together the current crop of neo-ravers with the old-school dance veterans.
“We’ve come a long way,” Rissi said, “and it’s going be a very special event.”
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 176