Ra Ra Riot has come a long way since I first saw them perform in 2007 at moe.down festival near their home in upstate New York. As a band with more of an indie-rock m.o., they seemed out of place at a jam-band flavored festival. But then it quickly became obvious that the upstart group wasn’t distracted at all by their unlikely surroundings, nor were they going to hold back the emotional beauty and inspiration that fuels their music.
The band played with an urgent sincerity and a beautifully cathartic rawness that gripped my heart instantly. It was a strikingly upbeat yet extremely emotive brand of indie-rock and orch-pop that drew me in with each passing note, chord, and lyric. The way the guitars, drums, violin, and cello wrapped around the fervently enchanting vocals of lead singer Wes Miles was palpable to say the least. As the band played, you could feel the surges of pain, sorrow, and grief in the music as the band collectively channeled the loss of their friend. It was one of those rare, live, music moments when you get to see a band at a pivotal turning point in the career, and you hope that they will continue to grow and share the magic with more fans.
Now, three years later — following the success of their debut LP the Rhumb Line in 2008 — the sextet rolled in to Chicago during their fall tour the latest album The Orchard.
After the first concert in 2007 and letting the new album grow on me these last few weeks, I expected great things from Ra Ra Riot. And as the show unfurled, the band did exude a sense of growth and maturity as I had hoped. The Orchard retains everything that I love about the band’s ability to communicate and genuinely reflect love, pain, grief, and loss that we all experience at some point in our lives. And they deliver their message in a way that’s full of immense grace, maturity and uniqueness.
Track to track, The Orchard is a sweeping and lush sonic portrait you can get lost in. More specific, it deftly captures the emotions we feel when someone, or something that we’ve grown close to suddenly dies. And in some ways, The Orchard listens like a comforting letter written for those who are left behind to struggle with the pain, sorrow and sadness caused by the loss of a love one. And it gets more gorgeous each time I listen to it. But would the album experience translate to the live show?
The combination of speed, intensity and the emotional depth of each chord, beat and lyric is what makes Ra Ra Riot such an exciting band to listen to, live and on record. And when the combination is firing on all cylinders and in sync, the band can unlock and summon thoughts and feelings that are otherwise buried deep in your heart and mind.
For the most part, the sextet delivered live what The Orchard promises between your headphones. Only when they let the anxiety of performing live get the best of them, did the show feel rushed or hurried. And when they did find the right pace and tempo, fans bobbed their heads, blissfully closed their eyes and got lost in the gorgeous grooves orchestral melodies flowing all around us. During those moments everything felt right and the Metro buzzed with pure rhythmic electricity.
Halfway through, under intimately dimmed stage lights, cellist/vocalist Alexandra Lawn sensually crooned the love letter lyrics to “You and I Know,” while the synth, guitar, bass and strings weaved together like a tightly knit fabric of mystery and melodic pleasure. As Miles, pointed out to the crowd earlier, it was the first time that Lawn has taken lead vocals on Ra Ra Riot song. And I hope to hear more from Lawn, because the moment elevated the group’s live show and sound making both more dynamic and versatile.
Going back to one of their best songs from their 2007 debut, they wrapped up with the chillingly epic and beautifully eerie ballad “Ghost Under Rocks.” They returned for two encore songs that were both equally joyous and stunning, but for me, the story of this Windy City show climaxed and triumphaintly expired the minute they played the final sublime and hauntingly holy note of “Ghost.”