Following three opening acts—So Many Dynamos, Cut Off Your Hands and Funk’n Waffles co-owner Adam Gold’s flapjack-a-delic Sophistafunk—the
Ra Ra’s took the stage just before midnight to an undulating sea of
bobbing, weaving, jumping and fist-pumping hands, heads and cups of
The Riot-ers have recently been the featured musical guests on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
And within the last week, the group’s music has popped up on XM Radio
Channel 43 (SiriusXMU). Ra Ra Riot is really the first band from
Syracuse to attain cross-country prominence since Lou Reed and John
Cale injected the seeds of taboo into the Velvet Underground on the SU
campus circa 1965.
There are some similarities between the
Velvets and the Ra Ras, but there’s more of an antithetic ethos
circulating through their sonic mainlines. During his tenure with the
Velvets, Cale incorporated classical non-guitar stringed instruments,
such as the electric viola, into many songs from the two albums he
appeared on with the group (Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat). Ra Ra Riot has also followed this format, with two easy-on-the-eyes-and-ears sirens of string: Violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn
add a touch of harmonic elegance to the poppy indie rock ambience the
band roots themselves in, as opposed to the opiating poppy sort the
Velvets shot euphonically.
Get your Ra Ra ya-yas out: The SU-originated rock band offered a homecoming weekend at the Westcott Theater.
Whereas Cale created avant-garde
electro-shocks on songs like “The Black Angels’ Death Song,” Zeller and
Lawn are rooted in their classical training, which gives a more
polished, yet sometimes too conscripted of a feeling in a live setting.
Another band the Riot is oft-compared to, Arcade Fire, suffers from
this same problem, which tends to get repetitive after frequent
listenings to the studio albums.
Ra Ra Riot performed several tracks from their eponymous debut EP and their first LP dubbed The Rhumb Line
(Barsuk), including “Each Year,” “Can You Tell,” and “Ghost Under
Rocks,” the entire set of which timed out at less than an hour. The
songs are performed in a nearly identical manner as you’d hear them on
the album. But whereas that method would ultimately doom any touring
band’s performances from one to the next as exciting as ritual
masturbation to the same centerfold, the Ra Ras play it live with a
mystical passion that doesn’t turn up on the studio cuts, bouncing
their on-stage energy off the collective rile of the crowd like a game
of musical handball in moving traffic.
The strings add to the Ra Ra’s mystic
sound, but there’s also been an invisible force driving the band since
June 2, 2007, when original drummer John Pike accidentally
drowned in his home state of Massachusetts while taking a moonlight
swim. The outfit recorded the song “Dying is Fine” in his honor, as
well as a coping mechanism, which lead singer Wesley Miles emotionally recalled before the Westcott performance.
While Miles’ tenor warbling is very
refined and meshes well with the strings, it remained at a constant
variable throughout each song and did not ebb and flow with the
dynamics of the underlying groove. Also, his between-song chatter
exuded the halting charisma of Lou Ferrigno sucking off a helium
balloon while narrating a physics textbook—nothing that a few more
years of touring couldn’t fix. Maybe if they take advantage of the
feminine voices surrounding them and take another cue from the Velvets,
who had the baroque German chanteuse Nico add a defining element to
their debut album, Ra Ra Riot might find that idiosyncratic musical
alchemy that will take them even higher.
Rounding out the group is guitarist Milo Bonacci and bassist Mathieu Santos,
whose interplay has become synergistic to the point that it sounds like
one’s playing the others instrument from afar. And as they have deemed
the late Pike irreplaceable, Ra Ra Riot has had a revolving slew of
drummers in his stead, with Gabe Duquette filling that role over the last half of the year.
Like attending a sporting event, the home team will
always get the approval of the crowd, even during a bummer. It would be
interesting to see the response that Ra Ra Riot would get in a neutral
city, but regardless of city limits, they brought the Westcott house
down and it’s hard to not see that energy riding shotgun with them from
one burg to the next. Beyond the horizon seems to be the limitless
potential of the musical wave this band is riding. And ironically, the
lyrics of an erstwhile Velvet Underground tune written by Reed, called
“The Ocean,” seem to summarize that wave that these bands with the same
points of origin share:
“Here come the waves down by the shore, washing the soul
of the body that comes form the depth of the sea/ And here come the
waves and save for a scream, there’s much like a song to be heard in
the wind that blows by the sea, like the wind.”