Ra Ra Riot
The Mod Club. Monday, August 30, 2010.
Well, I have to say that this was one that I was coming into as more of a casual enthusiast than a fan. I'd liked The Rhumb Line, the debut from Syracuse, NY-based six-piece Ra Ra Riot some when it came out, but it had really been more than a year since the band had crossed my mind in any capacity. Now hooked up with Arts & Crafts to handle the Canadian release of their second album, The Orchard, I was here to get a feel for how things have progressed.
This was a free show open to "contest winners", though in this case, I think that was more "people who sent an email before the guestlist reached capacity". A savvy bit of word-of-mouth marketing, attracting the band's most ardent fans as well as an unusually large chunk of the local music blogger infrastructure.
One oughtn't complain too much at a free show, but with no opener, the late start after the advertised time was a bit of a drag. But it was to a pretty enthusiastic full house that the band emerged to lead off with "St. Peter's Day Festival", from The Rhumb Line. As I said, I hadn't thought about the band at all for quite awhile, so my utterly unoriginal first thought was (pace the hipster dinosaurs), "man, they do sound like Vampire Weekend." And showing how little the first album had stuck with me, I didn't recall a lot of the older stuff, being unsure at the time just how much the of new album we were getting. The answer, for a CD-release gig, was less than one would have thought, and the band, despite being in front of as supportive a crowd as they'd be likely to find, seemed reluctant to pull themselves away from the older material. In fact, it wouldn't be until a half-hour in that the band ventured to play back-to-back songs from the new album.
There also wasn't a radical re-think in the band's musical approach — this isn't a raw rock'n'roll attack. "Mannered" would be more like it. Everything the band does keeps vocalist Wes Miles at the centre. His clear voice was high in the mix, and there wasn't much in the way of backing vocals — only cellist Alexandra Lawn had a mic, and she was kept fairly low. Miles' vox were buoyed up by a lush bed of sound that included two string players on stage. It was also a controlled sound — drummer Gabriel Duquette playing to a click track for most of the show.
A lot of the new stuff had a similar-but-less-inspired vibe, such as "Foolish" with some 80's-styled keybs. But the music was unfailingly pleasant, and the band did manage to generate some nice momentum, with "Boy" ending on a quiet cello line that was a segue into "Each Year".
During the set, Miles was cheerful between songs but not too chatty, issuing a reeled-off list of thanks several times that sounded more like talking points than banter. Along with the music, that might be seen as evidence of a certain roteness from the band, though it could also just be down to the band getting used to playing these new songs and letting their own identities come out more strongly. But it's perhaps telling that the set-closing showstopper was still the first album hit "Dying Is Fine" — and the encore song was one from the old album too.
Say what you will about the band — I wasn't blown away or really moved to grab the new album — I do absolutely love Arts & Crafts' continuing commitment to integrating their music into the community with free album release shows and the like. A&C gets blowback in some quarters for being too big for their britches, but by and large they have an admirable track record with shows like this one.
Listen to a track from this set here.