Green shadows and geometric patterns slide across the brick wall behind the stage at Sapphire Supper Club, where Blue Eyes guitarist Mike Rizzo stands alone picking an evocative melody. He is soon joined by vocalist David Minshew, singing in a melancholy Nick Cave-like croon while the bass, drums and cello remain silent onstage. The cello belongs to Melena Grimes, who is sitting in front of the stage as her bandmates begin their set.
A minute later she joins Minshew and Rizzo onstage, followed by drummer Mark Saxon and bassist Mark Williams, and the song becomes recognizable as "Drink to Sleep." By the third song, a new dynamic dimension seems to appear. Minshew breaks into an extended but restrained howl that soars through the club and draws curious onlookers from the street. Grimes' cello begins to emerge from the background, and the full ensemble force of the band makes its presence felt.
Although the members of Blue Eyes were brought together by a shared taste for minimalist bands like Low and Red House Painters, individually they have been all over the musical map. Rizzo spent his formative years playing in punk bands before departing to Los Angeles at the turn on the decade to study at the Musicians Institute. Minshew hooked up with post-goth rockers Craven A, where he channeled his interest in the darker side of humanity into lyrical expression and developed a vocal approach influenced by Jim Morrison, Billy Idol and Nick Cave. That band evolved into Slow, which rode the grunge/alternative revolution and received major-label attention years before Orlando had any credibility as a viable music scene. Minshew says he had grown disillusioned with the direction the band was heading in musically and quit after a resultant self-destructive binge. It would be nearly five years before he would sing again.
Rizzo eventually made his way back to Orlando, refining his songwriting with several band projects before meeting Minshew through ex-Slow drummer Chris Nobling. Rizzo shared a taste for minimalist, spatial expression with Minshew and girlfriend Grimes, and the three formed the core of what would soon become Blue Eyes. "Originally when Dave and I got together we talked about doing an ethereal thing," says Rizzo. "Space is cool in music because it's like transparency. It's like you're in blackness, like you have to imagine in a visual sense, and every time there's space you can see really far."
Rizzo's sparse guitar style complemented Minshew esoteric lyrics well. "I kind of have a way of masking the lyrics so that they're a little more strange instead of a straightforward pop-love song," he says. Saxon soon joined on drums, but the band would play for six months without a bassist before finding Williams. His addition led to a shift in musical direction and enthusiasm. The fuller sound resulted in a unique identity that transcends the trappings of the "goth rock" label. Blue Eyes developed a more earthy, unassuming sound that is better described as Southern Gothic, or as an anonymous writer in Bitch Rag put it, "It's what goths listen to when they grow up."
"I think our Southern Gothic roots, if there's a gothic influence in `our music`, it would be more of from a storytelling point of view," says Minshew. "Like a Faulkner or a Flannery O'Connor point of view. Our songs are stories, but they hit home. ... They're stories about cheating on people, fantasizing, fascination."
Those stories, due out on CD by the end of the summer, are brought to life at the Sapphire show. Minshew's voice shivers and shakes, more expressive than it's ever been against the backdrop of Grimes droning cello and Rizzo's winding guitar twang. Bass and drums stay in minimalist sync during a set that includes a free-jazz saxophone freakout from Minshew and a xylophone accompaniment that contrasts with Rizzo's ascending chords during the quiet waltz time of "Lullaby." For now, the stories live in the moment, a Southern Gothic collection carried by melancholic melodies and a soaring vocal.