Since they last played in D.C., Rainbow Kitten Surprise (RKS) has been busy. Last year, the high energy ensemble hailing from Boone, North Carolina graced nearly every stage along the festival circuit, including heavy-hitters like South by Southwest, Bonnaroo, Firefly, and Austin City Limits. 2018 is shaping up to be an even bigger year — with their first album release under Elektra Records on April 6th.
Last we saw RKS, it was 2016, they were touring for their album RKS and college kids who knew their songs by heart made up most of the audience at the packed Black Cat backstage. They quickly upgraded to the mainstage six months later, now with the release of How To: Friend, Love, Freefall, they have another sold out show to their belt, this time at the 9:30 Club. Despite the whimsical name, this band is growing up, and fast.
It’s both difficult to describe exactly what makes RKS unique and also incredibly simple — one needn’t look any further than the band’s lead singer Sam Melo. While schematically the band resembles a number of folksy rock bands featuring a male crooner on lead vocals (bands like Modest Mouse, Band of Horses and Neutral Milk Hotel are often said in the same breath), Melo’s presentation in both sound and style is both unmatched and best experienced live. An RKS experience truly isn’t complete until you witness this tight little ball of concentrated emotion and talent exploding on stage.
The band got things started with the first two songs from their latest album, ‘Pacific Love’ and ‘Mission to Mars’. The first was a harmonization in-between band members which eased into a more upbeat, almost twangy summer song and was followed, at the end, by “The album has been out now for about 6 minutes,” which got the first big crowd response of the night. As things moved into a more familiar space with ‘Cocaine Jesus’, a song that has undoubtedly solidified RKS musical stance with Melo’s staccato and raw voice, the crowd started singing along. Melo’s high-energy vocals and theatrical moves had him spinning into a jumble of twirling limbs and embodying an emotional plea, complete with furrowed brow, arms outstretched toward the audience. While he’s toned down the extent of screaming in his act since 2016, (perhaps because of Elektra producer Jay Joyce encouraging some vocal preservation), the feeling is still there. In fact, Melo’s lyrical delivery is nearly always a physical performance of the content therein, gestures and expressions punctuating the meaning.
In addition to his energetic performance, Melo brought vulnerability to the stage, discussing openly his experience coming out as a gay man, and explaining how that experience led to one of RKS’s new songs, “Hide”, which is based on Melo’s estranged relationship with his family. “I played the music video for my dad three weeks ago, and he didn’t talk to me for three hours,” Melo said. “But two nights ago he acknowledged my boyfriend Larry for the first time and my mom told me she loved me for the first time since coming out.”
Melo is certainly the glue that holds RKS together. Yet, each member, starting with the fat and catchy bass riffs from Charlie Holt, do more than just bring cohesion to the RKS sound. Throughout the show, Holt often found himself playing back and forth with Melo, almost as if they were trying to out do each other on who could come up with the silliest dance. Holt probably did as many, if not more twirls than Melo did; all while keeping perfect rhythm and a constant this-is-best-moment-of-my-life kind-of-smile. As for the rest of the band, we kept wondering how these differently styled musicians came together to be what they are now.
The show came close to 2 hours, with 17 songs played, including a 2-song encore which left the audience ecstatic. What’s undeniable is that their sound has gotten more polished, at times losing the screams and raw-ish sound that captivated fans. They’ve also lost the more personable approach to their performance, which used to include Melo wandering around the audience for half of the set. These were certainly the traits that helped grow RKS, and the ones we first noticed at that sweaty Black Cat show.
It’s clear that 2017 was a year of growth for Rainbow Kitten Surprise, both personally and professionally, and followers have been lucky to be along for the ride. If Melo and crew continue to saturate their music in authenticity and passion, they’re a group we’d be fortunate to grow along with for many years to come.
Words by Julie Espinosa