Wes Miles pulls at his clothes like he wants to say “Free me from this earthly prison!” He stares into nothing. He turns this way and that with lifts and presses of one boat-shoed foot. Wes Miles does not stand still, and the rest of his band does not stand still, and no one in this cavernous room stands still, and everything jitters electrically.
This is Ra Ra Riot’s biggest headlining show to date, and Wes nervously admits this between “Run My Mouth Off” and “Winter ’05,” halfway into the show as if he doesn’t want to jinx things. I have always believed that Ra Ra Riot deserve more attention and more love, and when year-end lists came out last December I looked nervously for The Rhumb Line (their only album) everywhere, for their name in the top-ten of best live band, for “Ghost Under Rocks” under best song, but I was disappointed to discover that not all people extend the kind of adoration to Ra Ra Riot that I do. This sold-out show appears to be a step in the right direction.
The band, six-strong and co-ed, appear on stage to the dying strains of some Santigold song, and the crowd erupts in what seems like matchless joy. They open with “Saint Peter’s Day Festival,” which was written by their former drummer John Pike before his death in 2007. This has always been one of my favorite Ra Ra Riot songs, in how it celebrates and honors Pike’s life and his talent as a songwriter – and manages to be uplifting and joyful. They segue immediately after that, without pause, into “A Manner to Act,” which is all whirling strings and fuzzy guitar and lyrics like “I got two stitches in my eye.”
The thing about Ra Ra Riot’s live show, which you notice throughout its course, is that they love playing shows, or at least they convincingly appear to. While Allie Lawn, the cellist, sometimes sings backing vocals, she almost always sings to herself while she plays, and sometimes bassist Mathieu Santos or guitarist Milo Bonacci will approach her and they will sing to each other. None of them stand in one place for very long – they will pace or dance around and play to each other or smile at each other or play on each other’s instruments or – Wes does this – grab each other by the shoulder.
They play the entirety of their only album before the end of their first set: highlights include “Too Too Too Fast,” which is fast-paced and upbeat and great to dance to, and their cover of Kate Bush’s “Suspended in Gaffa.” I’ve never even heard the original. Wes’s voice, strategic violin courtesy of Rebecca Zeller, and some electric organ manage to make the song somewhat less melodramatic (with lyrics like “beware of the angels… I’m scared of the changes…” this is a difficult feat) and more passionate.
Ra Ra Riot play two new songs tonight. One is slower, with a beat that reminds one of my friends of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The other is better (the notes I took just say “awesome”), faster, with a catchy chorus and bouncy strings. After the second new song they play “Ghost Under Rocks,” which is intense and beautiful, captivating and mesmerizing, with one of those choruses you can’t help but awkwardly shout: “All, all, all your soaking wet dreams! You’ve spent them, you have gone and dreamt them dry.” Everyone around me sang it, and everyone on stage sang it, and Wes sang it whilst pulling at the chest pocket of his blue button-down shirt and gazing, as one blog put it, into the ether.
After “Dying is Fine” they go offstage for a bit, and come back out after two minutes to raucous applause and cheering. They play the two remaining songs in their repertoire. One is “Everest,” the second track on their EP, which is perhaps their angriest song and their most devastating. When I first heard “Everest” I was certain that this band was something important. The strings are shivering, with constant crescendos; fuzzy guitar and quick drums; and Wes shouts words like “Oh, oh, oh, I need to let you go.”
They close with the second Kate Bush cover they perform live, “Hounds of Love.” I have never seen Ra Ra Riot play “Hounds” before, but I have heard recordings of them playing it. Recordings, however, can do no justice. Wes paces around, gesturing and jumping, Rebecca Zeller’s violin is gorgeous and jittery, and with every “throw them in the lake” the band bob their heads in exact unison. When Wes sings “I feel your arms surrounding me” he and Matheiu Santos awkwardly embrace. Everyone on stage sings “I need your love, I need your love, I need your love.” And we try, all of us in that sold-out audience, all of us try, and all of us hope it is enough.
I would recommend giving Ra Ra Riot some love. At the very least, their live show deserves your immediate attention.