Ra Ra Riot’s current producer Andrew Maury once told me the reason you have to see the band live is because its energy alone is a “captivating spectacle.”
I’ve seen Ra Ra Riot play more than a dozen times and Maury, a 2008 SU grad, is right. Ra Ra Riot is an experience. There is an enthusiasm for live music, a knack for interacting with the crowd and an outward camaraderie between bandmates that reaffirms why people go to shows in the first place. No matter how long you’ve been following Ra Ra Riot or whenever the last time you’ve seen them was, the band has changed in some way since – as Friday’s sold-out show at Funk ‘n’ Waffles made clear.
The most obvious change is in appearance. A friend of mine always joked that we could tell how big Ra Ra Riot was becoming by the brand of skinny jeans they wore when they took the stage (we believe it’s been Diesel for awhile now), but it’s more than that. When I saw them in April of ’06 at a 2 a.m. Relay for Life set, the band originally had two lead singers. Wes Miles wasn’t even necessarily considered the lead of the two. That title belonged to Shaw Flick, another ’06 Syracuse graduate, who left the band after their first summer tour post-graduation. Cellist Allie Lawn even told NY press that, “When he quit, it was devastating.”
The band continued on however, playing a memorable Halloween show at Mezzanote lounge where they all dressed as skeletons (and eventually hitting the mark at CMJ 2006, what they’d later refer to as their big break).
The band’s better known and more tragic lineup change didn’t come long after. In June 2007, less than a year after Flick left the band, drummer and songwriter John Pike died after a show in Massachusetts. If Flick’s loss was devastating, even the typically eloquent band couldn’t sum up their feelings for losing such a valued bandmate and friend. They issued a statement saying “This has felt like the unraveling plot of a tragic piece of fiction...nothing would have prepared us for such an immense loss.”
With the blessing of Pike’s family and a desire to keep his memory alive, the band continued on to release their original EP and first album, The Rhumb Line. Pike made significant writing contributions to each.
I remember catching the first Funk N’ Waffles show they played after Pike’s death, but even more memorable was the small set they played in March 2008 in the basement of then UU President Sterling Proffer’s house. Members of Pike’s family came, a moment of silence sparked some tears and “St. Peter’s Day Festival” became something of a memorial song. The band went through two other drummers (Cameron Wisch and Michael Ashley) before eventually settling in with current member Gabriel Duquette.
Overall, that’s four members lost in just four years.
Throughout those trials, the band’s sound changed as well. They once played covers of Madonna and ended every evening with Kate Bush. Songs like “Dying Is Fine’ and “Can You Tell” have been around since the beginning, but even they underwent several different evolutions. Listening to the original “Dying Is Fine” with Flick’s near-robotic vocals is startling now.
Their release of The Orchard this week marks a more noticeable change – a move toward subdued, orchestral numbers reliant on playful interplay between instrument voices, intersecting harmonies and Miles’ vocal track. The album’s title track (first thing you hear in the album) doesn’t even feature a drum track, a radical change from a band often led from behind the kit in the past.
The one constant through their four-year whirlwind of an existence has been their relationship with Syracuse. The band’s lineup and sound may continue to change but their birthplace remains a constant. They can sell out a 700-person venue in town easily (and they have) but yet they still choose to play intimate shows for a local crowd that is as familiar as it is changing.
“On campus, they’re just as popular now as they were then, even more popular obviously,” said Kyle Corea, co-owner of Funk N Waffles and a roommate of Miles and Pike when at Syracuse. “They sold out a 700-person venue last time so whenever they come through it’s special. We get older but younger crowds keep coming to see Ra Ra Riot play. This show we didn’t even advertise for and it sold out. There are fans of the band who just keep up with them no matter where they are. People are driving in from Ohio and Binghamton to see them tonight even.”
The fans at local gigs may know the band from their favorite college-radio station, through personal connections or even from that recent Miley Cyrus movie. No matter what the basis of the fandom is, Ra Ra Riot seems genuinely appreciative and wants to connect to the area. Their sound guy is from here and so are the folks who created the DVD to accompany The Orchard. The band has spent time at Sound Garden in-stores after each full-length they’ve released (not just performing, but this time an additional 20 to 30 minutes signing autographs too). Their recent Funk N Waffles show ended around 11:30 p.m., but they didn’t leave the venue ‘til after midnight because of the time they spent with fans (they even granted us time for an interview).
“We always felt like Syracuse was where we met and formed so it’s an important place for us to play here and reconnect with students and fans,” Miles said. “Funk N Waffles is a good place to play, our friends run it so it helps us remember what brought us together and have a good time.“
Friday night was only the most recent stop in what’s become a tradition of finding their way into Syracuse each year. This time – through their sound changed and their notoriety certainly grew – their level of comfort here stayed the same. If there’s anything learned from watching Ra Ra Riot’s ascent in the music scene, it’s that there’s no reason to believe this will change no matter what the band experiences next.