MINNEAPOLIS -- The band Tripping Icarus took the stage shortly after 9 p.m., kicking off a benefit show at Hell's Kitchen, an eclectic downtown restaurant and club with an enormous statue of an angel behind the riser. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak introduced the guitar-driven four-man group, known as much for its tall, unassuming bass player as its Seattle-influenced sound.
The packed crowd swayed and danced through an energetic 45-minute set of original material, titles like "Misery," "A Mirror Darkly," and "Love, Sex and Drugs." When it was over, bassist Chris Kluwe -- also the Minnesota Vikings' punter -- helped his bandmates break down their equipment and clear the stage for the next group.
Backstage, in a narrow hallway lined with lockers, band members quickly engaged in one of their favorite pastimes: ragging on each other.
No one took credit for the band's catchy name, a nod to the Greek mythological figure Icarus, whose father fashioned wings for him. Icarus then perished after flying too close to the sun. However, drummer Matt Marshall playfully reminded everyone that Kluwe offered the worst suggestion, War Bear, inspired by a video game. Kluwe tried defending himself, but lead guitarist Andy Reiner and singer/guitarist Jesse Damien Revel joined in the needling, and Kluwe's face turned red.
"I don't mind," Kluwe said. "To me, that shows a healthy group dynamic. If you can't laugh at yourself, how are you going to laugh at other people? That's how I've always been with my friends, and I'm glad we have that dynamic with the band."
Kluwe's joint interests in gaming and music led to his involvement in Tripping Icarus, which performs in and around the Twin Cities.
This isn't some cheesy professional athlete vanity project. Marshall, Reiner and Revel are accomplished musicians who consider the 30-year-old Kluwe a peer.
Without a manager or a record label, Tripping Icarus produced two well-regarded albums and just released a third. Fans download music from the band's website, and its Facebook page earned more than 4,000 "likes." The band twice has played the main stage at First Avenue, the iconic Minneapolis club where Prince and the Revolution rocked in its Purple Rain heyday.
"I think they're pretty good," said Sonia Grover, who books bands for First Avenue and its secondary stage, 7th Street Entry. Tripping Icarus made its First Avenue main stage debut in December 2009 as an opening act for the Australian rockers Sick Puppies. Grover said the band turned down a chance to open a 7th Street show this Friday for Nonpoint, a national act, because Kluwe returned home to California for the Vikings' bye week.
As a kid, Kluwe said he played the violin from age 5 or 6 until he reached high school, when he concentrated on football and baseball. "After school, it was either sports or music," he said. "I loved sports, so I chose sports."
"And video games," Reiner said.
Kluwe laughed. "It worked out OK for me," he said.
In football, especially. Now in his eighth season with the Vikings, Kluwe owns franchise records for career gross punting average, punts over 50 yards, and punts inside the 20, while ranking second in net average.
"I talk about him being a weapon," Vikings specials teams coach Mike Preifer said. "He's a good enough punter that he can be a weapon for us, if we get the hang-time punt that we want. We have a chance to cover those."
In Kluwe's first few seasons, he played the video game "Guitar Hero" relentlessly. Eventually, he reached an achievement level where the screen read, "Buy a real guitar already." So Kluwe took guitar lessons for six months. Then he tried the bass, which has four strings -- just like his old violin.
"They're very similar," Kluwe said. "It immediately felt natural in my hands, and at that point I said, OK, I want to switch over. It was easier to play, and felt more comfortable."
Reiner, the executive editor of Minneapolis-based Game Informer Magazine, met Kluwe through a mutual friend at a gamer gathering about five years ago.
"He's got a really good understanding of anything he picks up," Reiner said. "He learns it very quickly, whether it's a video game or music. And he always tries to master it. That's kind of how he is, how he's wired."
Three years ago, Kluwe and Reiner discussed putting a band together. Reiner knew Marshall, who in turn knew Revel, a gifted singer/songwriter and guitarist from northern California.
They debuted with a three-song set at a comedy club in the Mall of America, a gig Kluwe called exciting yet nerve-wracking. "It was my first time playing in front of people," he said. "I wanted to make sure I didn't mess up any of my parts."
And Kluwe quickly learned that the focus he developed to punt consistently was useless in a live show. With the band, he can't ignore his surroundings.
"It's a skill I've had to learn, to be playing my part, but at the same time interacting with people," he said. "You have to look out at the crowd, and you have to be engaging, or else people are just paying money to see guys stand up on stage and stare at their instruments the entire time. That's not really a lot of fun for anyone."
On stage, the 6-foot-4 Kluwe dresses the part of a rock-and-roller, favoring T-shirts, jeans and a dark stocking cap. Tripping Icarus songs are collaborative efforts. Revel writes the lyrics, each musician contributes his part, and they revise and refine before recording. Kluwe's grunge and metal influences include Soundgarden, Tool and Rage Against the Machine.
"There is no greater feeling than when a song comes together, when everyone is playing their part, and all the notes are dropping in the right place, the rhythm's there, the melody's there," Kluwe said. "It's really a group effort to make something that, on your own, you couldn't do."
Revel and Kluwe also give Tripping Icarus a political voice. The band played three benefits in October and November for an organization opposing a proposed Minnesota state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The last was the Hell's Kitchen show on Nov. 1, where Tripping Icarus opened for two other acts. (The amendment was defeated five days later.)
That night, Kluwe drew most of the attention. In Rybak's introduction, the mayor singled out Kluwe without mentioning the name of the band. After the set, two members of the Minnesota RollerGirls, an amateur roller derby league based in St. Paul, sneaked backstage to get Kluwe's autograph and take photos. One wore a cape with Kluwe's name affixed to the back.
"We're fine with that," Reiner said. But it makes Kluwe uncomfortable.
"When people talk about Tripping Icarus, we want them talking about Tripping Icarus," he said. "We don't want them to be, oh, that's the band the punter for the Vikings is in. We want them to say, oh, that's the band that has cool music and, hopefully, a good message.
"I think it's something we succeed at generally. And we have quite a few people that have no idea I play for the Vikings and like the music, which I think is awesome."