Letter from The Rock And Roll Hotel
(all photos: Jordan Swartz http://www.flickr.com/photos/thefacelesskid)
I know this is going to be tough to type into a text message but I really thought you should hear about this concert as soon as possible. It just ended and I’m standing in the street watching sweaty young people stagger out of the club and light up celebratory smokes. We’re smirking at each other like tired lovers who’ve just tried something ridiculously dirty. That dude I met in front of the stage, who drove all the way down from New York to see Ra Ra Riot play new songs, is chatting up the girls who offered to watch my beer when I went to the bathroom between bands. The place was packed even before the opener came on, and when I moved down the bar to make room for a couple, the guy bought me some Makers Mark in gratitude, which means this may have some spelling errors and randomly inserted @@@ symbols, sorry in advance
,b>What made everyone so damn positive tonight? The chance to see young bands right at the start of their career? The fact that it’s officially holiday time and Mom totally got the hint about how much you want a Wii even though you’re too old for Wario World? Or was it purely the music? Reverend Norb of Boris the Spinkler once observed that the difference between Pop and Punk is that Punk lyrics are full of “Right Now, Now Now Now” and Pop is more about “Tonight, Tonight.” The best pop makes you feel optimistic, like anything could happen, just a little later on. Tonight was like that.
“Hi, we’re These United States and we’re from Switzerland. It’s good to finally be in America so that our name makes a little sense. We’re here to gently ease you into your evening. The other two bands will be blowing you away, but that’s not what we do. We gently ease.” Jesse Elliot from These United States (who in fact are from DC) might be the funniest lead singer I’ve ever seen on a stage, and I’ve seen Hole FYI. “Next up is Jukebox the Ghost who are great. Then comes Ra Ra Riot who, and I hate to say it, are actually just a little bit better than Jukebox the Ghost…” he said, looking mischievous. When the audience busted up laughing, he turned to the rest of the band. “I really shouldn’t have said that, huh?” It helps that his music is so cheerful and nuanced, deceptively simple country melodies over nifty electronic rhythms.
They had a brand new drummer with them just for this show and Jesse called him out. “This is your first time playing a drumkit on a stage isn’t it?” he asked the man with the sticks. “No pressure!” Everything sounded smooth though, as the band’s live sound is more relaxed and folksy than their more tightly controlled and orchestrated recorded work. Banjos and violins and mandolins popped out, steering them more into the Band’s territory than the Postal Service. At one point Jordan, who took the awesome pictures I’ll attach to this message, bumped the mike stand right as Jesse started “What Do You Want With My Heart?” and he stopped the song, laughing, “Man, that could have chipped my tooth… Good thing they’re all fake!” Then he launched into the song with a real big grin, belying the ballad’s wistful lyrics. In the end they lived up to his promise and gentle ease was had by all.
Jukebox the Ghost probably hate comparisons to the Ben Folds Five, but it is hard to avoid, simply because of their set-up—electric piano(s), guitar, drums, complex arrangements that build from quiet harmonies to rocking Queen-like climaxes, and a frontman who’s cute enough to make a VH1 Top 10 Sexy list. It’s unfair, since a spate of other influences ensure that they aren’t derivative, and more importantly, they’re a lot of fun. Like it or not, the attitude of a band’s fans says a lot about the performer, and when dozens of hands shot up to clap along with Ben Thornewill in the very first song, they won me over instantly. I don’t mean that he stopped and made us all clap at some breakdown, it was just a split second where the people that loved that song participated in the concert without prompting, just because they could. Man, that’s a good metaphor for the way rock shows bring together individual fans of records from isolation into a cohesive audience, I hope I can remember it tomorrow!
Anyway, I was thinking that JtG had a touch of the funky stop-and-start chorus thing that Mates of State does, but the guitar solos manage to make the songs rock like the John Henry-era They Might Be Giants too. And then, Lo and Behold, they whipped out a cover of Birdhouse in Your Soul cranked up to a 70s glam-rock level. DC needs more bands that inspire Sing- or Clap-alongs rather than the Stand-still-muse-ats.
@k by the time Ra Ra Riot came on, there was almost a visual haze of excitement in the room, though that [email protected] have been the [email protected]’s [email protected] Hype is a funny thing. It’s so often undeserved and for made-up or spurious accomplishments that one can’t help but react negatively to every new Next Big Thing. Ra Ra Riot were already blowing people away with their live show before they were suddenly indie-rock headline material when they lost their drummer tragically in June. Since then every report of their activity has to contain the sentence I just laboriously punched into my phone. I can only guess at the ambivalence the members must feel at the attention paid to the extraneous circumstances of their rise in popularity, but to all accounts they seem to be handling the whole affair with a ton of poise and sanguinity. With any luck, their fans will soon overwhelm the press with attention to the unique sound that John Pike helped to create.
The band shared the audiences’ passion for their music, jumping from the note #1 into a swaying coherent Voltron of melody. It’s all about hooks with these kids, mostly humming out of the violin and the cello, which act like back-up singers behind Wesley Miles clear high voice, even as the rest of band harmonizes with him at points as well. Calling the minor key “sad” is a common oversimplification—these songs are often in minor keys but the Gang of Four beats and sudden changes into 1-4-5 pop choruses make it easy to start bopping around to them, even without the Syracuse NY graduates dancing zealously grooving right in front of you. Live though, it’s impossible not to dance. The intricacy of the arrangements reminded me of Interpol in some ways except instead of making me want to sit in the dark in an Armani suit it make me and the rest of the crowd do the Running Man and grab our neighbor by the shoulder and jump up and down.
Especially catchy was the new material, which they were debuting on stage after a few months working on it in a studio in Seattle. One featured cellist Alexandra Lawn on keyboard, who told me the name of it afterwards while they were (wo)manning the merch table but I promptly forgot it. It’s definitely the hit from their new album, though, which fact I explained to her and the other members very enthusiastically until I realized I was behaving somewhat like Chris Farley on his interview show from Saturday Night Live and so I shook her hand a little too heartily and changed the subject. “That was the longest show we’ve ever played,” violinist Rebecca Zeller said, sounding exhausted. It could have been even longer according to the rabid cheering after they crashed the encore to a close with one of the two Kate Bush covers they do. Kate Bush is sort of this band’s muse, partially in the stringed-instrument department, but also in her quirky, childlike lack of cynicism. Indie-rock often gets accused of being naïve, (when it’s not being accused of pretentious sarcasm) but at its best it’s just musicians who are too weird to make mainstream pop doing their thing in a space that lets them be themselves—in with the out-crowd, out with the in-crowd. Tonight was all about encouraging that kind of individualism, so I just wanted to tell you about it before I passed out and forgot how cool it felt. I’m going to hit “send” now, I hope this made sense.
Wish you were here.