all words: Jesse Young
all photos: Julia Benton
I hesitate to call Yellow Ostrich a “power trio,” only because that’s the kind of phrase tossed around by people who are usually idiots. However, it’s pretty apt when describing Wednesday’s opener at 9:30, where this New York-based trio kicked up quite a racket, despite their relative paucity in numbers.
Built around vocalist and guitarist Alex Schaaf (who began the group as solo project in Wisconsin), Yellow Ostrich makes tasteful use of looping to fill out their sound. Drummer Michael Tapper is a fantastic percussive engine, propelling the band out of its quieter, more plaintive moments.
On tunes like “The Shakedown,” Schaaf explored some good ol’ fashioned dissonance, letting loose jagged, angular bursts of fuzzed-out guitar on his Telecaster. On one of their closing tunes, bassist Jon Natchez strapped on a hulking tenor sax to lend the song a sweeping, urban-hymnal affect that sounded for all the world like early Jersey boardwalk-era Springsteen.
Moving on. To put it simply, Delicate Steve is not really my kind of band. A five-piece that focuses mostly on galloping, guitar-driven instrumentals, the band’s set struck me as meandering and unfocused. Their opener, a stop-start cacophony of shapeless guitar lines and fat Super Mario Brothers-style synths, never managed to find anything resembling a hook or generate any forward momentum.
Bandleader Steve Marion has an admirably distinctive trebly guitar sound, alternating between thin, piercing leads and sweeter George Harrison-like melodic runs. However, the band’s lighter moments – wherein they sound something akin to Graceland-era Paul Simon at a lunar dance party – are totally swallowed by their insistence on thudding, drum-heavy crescendos.
Taking the stage at 10:00 to a mostly-full house, Ra Ra Riot did not disappoint. This is a band that leaves me mostly cold on record: their studio sound is muffled and cerebral, sounding too much like the arty college band they’re occasionally dismissed as. Live, the band has a punky urgency and a huge drum sound that made much of their set engaging and intermittently danceable.
“Too Too Too Fast” is a perfect opener, with its catchy New Wave synth riffs and dreamy romanticism (Talk Talk, anyone?). The handclap breakdown at the close of the newer tune “Too Dramatic” felt fresh and energetic, while the sentiment behind its refrain (“You’re too dramatic/I don’t understand it”) should be familiar to anyone who’s dated a human. A peppy read of “Can You Tell” felt like the band’s best attempt at baroque disco, while also showcasing cellist Alexandra Lawn’s totally awesome rock stance. Rock music is dying for more hot lady cellists with compelling rock stances.
If Ra Ra Riot has one shortcoming on stage, it’s the relative lack of a strong mid-range in their sound. With their big, booming rhythm section anchoring the low-end and the strings and Wes Miles’ reedy vocals rounding out the higher ranges, the band sounds a bit thin in the middle. Losing either the cello or violin for more songs and adding another guitar would add a lot of punch to their overall sonic palate.
Vocalist Wes Miles does fine job as frontman, careening back and forth as he navigates the delicate space between self-conscious shy-kid reservedness and earnest power-rock stage moves. Cellist Lawn’s turns at the lead vocal mic revealed a sultry, Stevie Nicks-styled croon that provided a welcome contrast to Miles’ Ben Gibbard-meets-Eza Koenig leads.
On this current tour, Ra Ra Riot are toting along a handful of vertical florescent lights, which the band noted with pride early in their set. Recalling the cover of David Bowie’s 1978 Stage album or the lighting rig that Phoenix trucks around, they provided a swirling multicolor backdrop that matched the show’s eager, up-tempo energy.