Sweet and mild surprises awaited those of us who arrived at showtime last night for Ra Ra Riot's performance at the Firebird. First, though the doors opened an hour before, a line stretched into the parking lot at 9 p.m. A sold-out show on a Tuesday during spring break? Good signs.
Once inside, opener Pomegranates had already begun, but the first things we noticed were dancing crowd members adorned with elaborate face-paint and balloon-animal headdresses. Did we miss the carnival? Luckily the Cincinnati quartet onstage was conducting its performance with enough youthful spirit so that we were soon distracted from our lack of inflatable headgear.
Switching between lead vocals - Joey Cook's high, forest-animal calls juxtaposed with Isaac Karns' lower, calmer and less-polarizing voice - Pomegranates applied playful delivery to doomsday imagery on "Everybody, Come Outside!" Despite recording a high-concept album of the same name and labeling itself "art-pop," Pomegranates' combination of influences makes for dreamy music that's upbeat and cohesive. Its likeable potpourri of oversized drums, twinkling guitars and echoey layers never became bogged down. In other words, it's coming soon to the soundtrack of your favorite CW teen soap, or as another wise critic observed: "They sound like the John Hughes movie that never was."
Within milliseconds of taking the stage, Ra Ra Riot wrapped itself in a crescendoing, crashing - yet controlled - swell of cymbals, strings and guitar. First song "Massachusetts," from last year's The Orchard, sounds like Vampire Weekend, with its Afrobeat-inflected guitar and one-note, bored-choirboy chants. Hearing it live, the loveliness unique to Ra Ra Riot stood out: Wes Miles' dulcet voice sails and breaks in all the right places, cellist Alexandra Lawn's vocal layers, Rebecca Zeller's violin (bedazzled to make its acoustics more...sparkly?).
Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with an illustration of downtown St. Louis, Miles led the New York-based sextet through a 15-song set from both albums. Though the newer songs are a continuation of the lush, hooky orchestral pop of 2008's The Rhumb Line, the strings seemed underplayed in the arrangements, with heavier emphasis on Milo Bonacci's guitar. Still, any rock-influenced urgency didn't transfer to the live set, as The Orchard's recurring mid-tempo felt like a plod. The exception was "Boy," another soaring toe-tapper that mentions ghosts, which got the crowd bobbing like the simultaneously more melancholy and dance-inducing tracks from the band's debut.
The bass was turned up too high for most of the set, but instead of always overpowering, this mix sometimes emphasized Mathieu Santos' integral bass lines: as on "Oh La" and "St. Peter's Day Festival," which had a dipping dancehall groove that totally snuck up on us.
All of Ra Ra Riot's performance can be summed up by its regular set-closer, on which Miles and Lawn sing - complacently, patiently - "You're too dramatic/I don't understand it." Everything about the band, down to the clean-cut young crowd it attracted last night, was just so damn...well-adjusted. For all the swirling drums and strings that could swoon into the melodramatic, it's just not in these kids' dispositions.
A sense of free-floating tragedy seeped through The Rhumb Line (and not just because of the loss of original drummer John Ryan Pike), but the music carried that weight as effortlessly as a wave cresting. Ra Ra Riot's last show here felt involving, cathartic. Last night, there was no drama, but also no spontaneous outburst of emotion - even from the supportive, polite crowd. It was another performance of very pretty, often beautiful music -- it was just less memorable.
Critic's Notebook: Missed the gorgeous quirkiness of "Suspended in Gaffa," one of RRR's Kate Bush covers. And does someone who arrived early want to clue me in on the balloon animals?
Setlist: Massachusetts Run My Mouth Too Too Too Fast Shadowcasting Can You Tell Oh La Do You Remember You and I Know ?? St. Peter's Day Festival Kansai Boy Too Dramatic
Encore: Ghosts Under Rocks Dying Is Fine