Ra Ra Riot brought some new tricks to their baroque pop sound at Upstate Concert Hall on Tuesday night.
Earlier this year, the Syracuse indie rockers’ founding cellist, Alexandra Lawn — a key component of the band’s string-driven sound — left the group. To counter this, the band focused on a more modern, keyboard and synthesizer-driven sound for its third album, “Beta Love,” due out next month.
The stylistic change definitely showed during the many new songs the band previewed during its hour-long set before a small crowd — at various points, frontman Wes Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci and violinist Rebecca Zeller all took turns behind one of two keyboards onstage. With a rather subdued touring cellist covering the parts on both new and old songs, the feel was much different from the classic Ra Ra Riot, even on the old songs.
But in the end, the band pulled it off, thanks to enthusiastic performances from the remaining band members, also including bassist Mathieu Santos and drummer Kenny Bernard. They were helped by the fact that the new songs, while much different, actually fit in quite well alongside the old ones.
Preparing the crowd
A prime example of this was right at the beginning of the show. Taking the stage at roughly 9:20, the band launched into “Too Too Too Fast,” a keyboard-driven song from 2008’s debut album “The Rhumb Line” that served to ease the audience into the changes that would come later in the set. Another older song, “St. Peter’s Day Festival,” came next, introducing Zeller’s violin work.
But things really began cooking with new song “Angel, Please,” a pure pop hook-fest with soaring synth lines from Miles punctuating the groove laid out by Santos and Bernard. The energy level continued to climb with “Shadowcasting” and the ethereal “Oh, La,” during which the intertwining cello and violin lines seemed to float, disconnected (in a good way) from the wall of sound created by the rest of the band.
Santos in particular deserves mention for his muscular bass work, which really got a chance to shine on “Dance With Me” later in the set. Miles, meanwhile, seemed to be the glue holding everything together, his wide-eyed energy and enthusiasm apparent throughout further new cuts “When I Dream,” “Binary Mind” and the brutal main set closer “Ghost Under Rocks.”
Not all of the new material worked — a miscued keyboard patch on “Beta Love,” which went off while Miles was still introducing the song, never again seemed to fit right with what the band was playing. But otherwise the group stayed strong through the encore, ending the show with a rousing run-through of “Boy.”
New York City quartet Guards opened the show with a short set that got better as it went on. The band is in love with My Bloody Valentine, to a fault — songs such as set opener “I Know It’s You” and “Silver Lining” successfully re-created the British band’s wall of fuzz, minus the excitement and originality.
A cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” fared much better, but it’s telling that this was the strongest performance the band gave. Nevertheless, the band rocked hard enough to get the crowd warmed up for the main event.