Review + Setlist: Ra Ra Riot, Princeton and Maps and Atlases at the Firebird, Sunday, September 20

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Ra Ra Riot's cello and violin are not a mere string section; they are power chords.The band's show last night redefined chamber pop, using strings not as flourishing or embellishment, but for heavy lifting. Alexandra Lawn (cello) and Rebecca Zeller (violin) rocked romantically while their swooning instruments directed the songs' trajectories, like soaring steel beams in the structure of a Ra Ra Riot melody.

The six-piece filled the packed Firebird with swirling indie gems which incited ebullient dancing about death. Lead vocalist Wes Miles' voice rang out high and clear, his oh-ohh's riding the crests of the band's lush-yet-taut arrangements.

The crowd showed support from the start: Whenever Miles paused to say "thank you" between songs, many shouted back, "Thank you!" The gorgeous "Oh, La" absorbed the crowd, and the next song, the cymbal-crashing cover of Kate Bush's "Suspended in Gaffa," had band and crowd wrapped up in a head-tossing carnival waltz. The room only grew steamier through the set's second half, and by the time Ra Ra Riot launched into "Ghost Under Rocks," with its big drums and haunting string pulls, the crowd was sweating through its close-fitting flannel as Ally and Wes cried, "All, all, all your soaking wet dreams!"

Listening to Ra Ra Riot's 2008 full-length debut, The Rhumb Line, with its wistful - if effervescent - imagery of water and the grave, it is hard not to think about the loss that looms behind this band's beginnings: the 2007 death of original drummer John Pike, who has songwriting credits on half the tracks. Seeing the band live, however, infused the songs with fervor and a bittersweet joy that is joy just the same. Busting through synths on "Too Too Too Fast," Ra Ra Riot seems to be having out-and-out fun, and if they keep writing songs like exclamation-point "Dying Is Fine," they should have a solid career for a long time.

Opener Notes: Princeton: Clean-cut hipsters of the California variety (less hair, fewer accessories, skinny but healthy-looking) built songs around time-traveling beats, from doo-wop to calypso, and microphone echoes that enhanced their low voices, sounding like When In Rome at the beach. Check out their offbeat and charmingly violent videos on their website: you have to listen a little more closely to catch the idiosyncratic depths of these all-American weirdos.

Maps and Atlases: Scruffier and flannelled, this Chicago-formed band nevertheless based its foundations on surprising and skittish dance beats. An excess of beard was the only distortion on pleasantly nasal vocals, and a hardworking percussionist applied chiming xylophone and liberal cowbell. Members of So Many Dynamos guested during one number to lead the crowd in a breakdown as though dancing to "Shout" at a wedding reception: a little bit softer now (cowbell!), a little bit softer now (cowbell!)...because you can't fully appreciate a bridge without momentarily squatting on the ground. The quad exercise worked: By the time we were supposed to get a little bit louder now, the crowd was pogo-ing through the end of the set, ready for the buoyant riot to follow.

Ra Ra Riot Setlist: 1. [help?] 2. Each Year 3. [help?] 4. St. Peter's Day Festival 5. Oh, La 6. Suspended in Gaffa 7. Winter 05 8. Can You Tell 9. Dramatic 10. Ghost Under Rocks 11. Too Too Too Fast 12. Dying Is Fine 13. (encore) Run My Mouth

Princeton setlist: 1. Calypso Gold 2. Martina & Clive Krantz 3. Worried Head 4. I Left My Love in Nagasaki 5. Sadie & Andy 6. Show Some Love, When Your Man Gets Home 7. Korean War Memorial 8. Shout It Out

** Wes told me after the show that we should expect RRR's next album in the spring.

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