Only weeks removed from the tragic death of drummer John Pike, Ra Ra Riot has soldiered on, not just commendably, but indeed inspiringly, and have somehow managed to not lose a beat. Playing a free concert on Friday, June 29th at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, as part of the annual River-to-River Festival summer concert series, the Syracuse band drew an oversized crowd on an overcast day. Live, they included the six tracks off of last year’s self-titled EP, and more than a few new ones. Jumping and moving across the stage nearly every second, Ra Ra Riot proved they hadn’t gone sad – if anything, the performance was a little too bright.
The heart-breaking loss of a band member could kill any young band, but one had reason to think it would hit Ra Ra Riot particularly hard, with their youth and ‘collective’-like formation. But like Montreal’s The Arcade Fire, the fellow cello-and-violins-included über-collective who rose from the ashes of the deaths (though of no one so young, or in the band) to create the awe-inspiring Funeral, Ra Ra Riot seems to have grown only stronger. It surprised many that the group would continue to tour, but after talking with Pike’s parents and each other, they thought this would be the best way to honor his memory.
But even if you knew nothing of the band’s recent tragedy, one would have been very happy with the show at the South Street Seaport tourist spot. In an effort to revitalize lower Manhattan after the events of September 11th, 2001, for the past six years an alliance of public and private groups have been sponsoring a number of free events on both sides of the southern tip of Manhattan, from just blocks away from Ground Zero to the East River’s South Street Seaport (QRO venue review). With the next-door Pier 17 Mall, South Street Seaport is the kind of rebuilt downtown docks, turned into a shopping district with shiny new upscale chains, that one might expect to find in such post-shipping seaboard cities as Baltimore or Providence, but not blocks away from Wall Street. However, Ra Ra Riot had fun with it, thanking the giant, looming Pizzeria Uno that was perched on Pier 17’s second story, just above the stage.
Just in case anyone feared that the boys and girls from upstate might be a little down, virtually every member was running to and fro on the stage, right from the get go. Only new drummer Mike Ashley and cellist Alexandra Lawn stayed in place, and Lawn did manage to be at a different spot during each song when she played her strange, ‘virtual’ cello (the single, central wooden strip of a cello, surrounded by a metallic cello outline of a frame). Violinist Rebecca Zeller even had a certain dance formation, sprinting forward, then leaning over and moonwalking backwards. Ra Ra Riot started off with the three driving, ‘party while you’re running’ Ra Ra Riot tracks, “A Manner To Act”, “Each Year”, and “Everest”, before delivering the first – and best – new song of the night, whose great keys and a strong bass line went along with spastic drumming.
The band then followed up with the two most single-worthy Riot pieces, “Dying Is Fine” and “Can You Tell?”. While playing something titled “Dying Is Fine” might sound impossible for a band so recently bereaved, it is actually a growing, uplifting number, denouncing The Reaper – now made even more emotional. The pretty and bright “Can You Tell?” was easily the night’s crowd favorite, but unfortunately it left in its shadow the two bright new pieces that followed (the latter, in fact, written by the late John Pike). “Ghost Under Rocks”, the closest thing to a ‘dark’ track on Riot, brought things down maybe a little too late in the set, but then Riot launched into their biggest party of the night, in the fun, chaotic explosions of a new song that closed things out well.
Stepping up to the plate after Atlanta’s Snowden (QRO live review) had to cancel their River-to-River engagement to stay on tour with Kings of Leon, Ra Ra Riot performed to a packed, but odd, mix at the free outdoor show: your usual New York hipsters (Manhattan and Brooklyn), still-learning college and high school kids, pre-teens, tweeners, and even middle-aged-and-up arts & community folk. But whether the audience members were ‘in the know’ or completely clueless, they couldn’t say they didn’t have a good time. And neither, thank goodness, could Ra Ra Riot.