Lead singer Wes Miles dominated Ra Ra Riot’s performance at the Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday, the second of four consecutive shows in New York. Slightly built and slightly bearded, Miles filled the (nearly) full house with the power of his high-pitched voice, somewhere between Sting and Bono with a touch of Bon Iver. At times, he stepped to the side to play keyboards or shook a tambourine. But for most of the night, he stuck to the microphone at center stage, belting out earnest and cheeky love songs over the band’s pristine pop.
Ra Ra Riot, The Orchard
Ra Ra Riot balanced their set at the Bowery with material from their new record, The Orchard, recently reviewed on FP, and their 2007 debut The Rhumb Line. The band matched Miles in energy, as they bowed, strummed, and hopped around the stage. Miles’s voice carried above the guitar, keyboards, and drums, though at times the bass muddied the sound and overpowered the electric violin and cello that define Ra Ra Riot’s studio sound.
On several songs, Ra Ra Riot was joined by ymusic, an entourage of string, horn, and reed players led by violinist Rob Moose, who has toured with Sufjan Stevens, Beth Orton, and Antony and the Johnsons. Fans of Punch Brothers may know Moose as the guy who arranged Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 3 for bluegrass instruments and performed the tune with Chris Thile and company at The Living Room.
At first, the audience–which contained far more females than the stereotypical indie rock crowd– stood at attention during the new material, especially the upbeat pop tunes “Boy” and “Too Dramatic.” Later the crowd came to life and danced and sang along to the older hits, including three love songs: the earnest “Oh La,” the semi-sensical “St. Peter’s Day Festival,” and the cheeky “Dying is Fine,” which incorporates an ee cummings poem: “I wouldn’t like death if death were good/Not even if death were good.” (Bonus points for use of the subjunctive. Super Bonus points for”Ghost Under Rocks” and its singalong chorus: “Oh, Oh, Oh/Your soaking wet dream.”)
Ra Ra Riot, Too Dramatic
Ra Ra Riot, Dying is Fine (Daytrotter Session)
Ra Ra Riot, Ghost Under Rocks (Daytrotter Session)
Despite the crowd’s preference, the band seemed at ease with their new stuff and determined not to crutch on their catalogue: they opened with the title track from The Orchard and for an encore played the album’s final song, “Keep it Quiet.”
Opening act Lower Dens must have missed that memo. The Baltimore quartet played visceral rock that droned and buzzed below the muddled moans of singer-guitarist Jana Hunter. Many songs revolved around a single bass note and a wall of guitar fuzz at high volume. Imagine an androgynous female-fronted Velvet Underground or Joy Division with more distortion and (even) less harmony and melody. On tour with Beach House and Bear in Heaven this fall, Lower Dens seemed like a mismatch with Ra Ra Riot’s soft program, which the band characterizes as “Healing and Easy Listening.” (N.B. Chikita Violenta and We Barbarians are the opening acts for the rest of the tour).
Still, the ominous drone of Lower Dens was a perfect soundtrack to the evening’s weather of thunder, lightning, and rain. And by the time Ra Ra Riot had finished their set, the mood had lightened and the storm outside had lifted.