Friday, February 15, 2013

Ra Ra Riot concert review: Santa Ana. Calif.

A version of my review originally appeared at

Modern romance via computer is a common mating option.

Yet during the early Eighties, it still seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie or TV show. That concept, musical era (think: Devo, Kraftwerk, Sparks) and books by futuristic authors (William Gibson, Ray Kurzweil), all had a major affect on Ra Ra Riot’s engaging third album “Beta Love.”

On the title track, front man Wes Miles sings “I might be a prototype/But we’re both real inside.” He also wonders “Who wants a human love?” amid “I Shut Off,” while “Binary Mind” references a “technocratic future world.”

Wednesday night at Observatory in Santa Ana, a large excitable audience saw the acclaimed New York City band deftly combine those fresh, sugary New Wave-influenced melodies with trademark chamber pop accents. Ra Ra Riot was dazzlingly illuminated by light bars a bigger, major label act would typically use

Frequently turning up on tastemaker SoCal radio shows like KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” (which hosted the group’s performance today, Feb. 14) as well as KROQ’s Rodney on the Roq and Jonesy’s Jukebox, Ra Ra Riot is currently #4 on the CMJ New Music Report top 20 album chart. A recent swing through The Orient found them sharing stages with Dirty Projectors and Best Coast.

Here, the musicians on electric guitar, bass, drums and violin were augmented by a fantastic tour drummer and cellist who doubled on keyboards/backing vocals. Having previously only seen a quick glimpse of Ra Ra Riot in the Mojave tent at Coachella ’10, I was pleased to finally witness a complete show in OC – and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. 

The 65-minute, 18-song set got off to a frenetic start with “Too Too Too Fast,” off 2008 debut CD, “The Rhumb Line.” Then squelching synthesizer dominated the hyper “Binary Mind,” the first of eight tracks played from the new release. 

Miles had no trouble replicating his helium falsetto during “Beta Love” and several other songs: the aptly-titled “Dance with Me” (many fans obliged all evening), a hauntingly dramatic “When I Dream” (reminiscent of mid-period Radiohead) and jittery, keyboard-driven highlight “For Once.”

Another standout was the dense, Arcade Fire-styled “Ghost Under Rocks,” which swelled with intensity and concluded with crashing drums. Exuberant main set ender “Boy” was capped by the mild-mannered vocalist jumping off the drum riser.

All told, the group struck a good balance between natural and synthetic sounds.   

Formed last year under the moniker Koko, Santa Ana’s own Pacific Air toured with Walk the Moon and Passion Pit and released an EP. Led by brothers Ryan and Taylor Lawhon, the dream pop duo (expanded to five members live) delivered a solid half hour performance that brought to mind MGMT fronted by a less flamboyant Adam Lambert. Previewing a major label full-length debut album due this spring on Republic Records, they fared best on the infectious “Roses” (with a cool recorder intro) and whimsical “Float,” complete with whistling and sleigh bells.

Earlier, Cayucas’ half-hour opening set was spirited and fun, along the lines of Vampire Weekend. The preppy LA alt-rock band infused their songs with plenty of group chants, surf guitar stabs and tambourine. Fronted by unassuming singer Zach Yudin, the laconic title track to their album “Bigfoot” (released by hip indie label Secretly Canadian), the tribal “High School Lover” and “Will the Thrill” made the most indelible marks. 

Next: 9 p.m. Feb. 15, Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach, $20-$22, (858) 481-8140 or

Ra Ra Riot, The Observatory, Santa Ana, Feb. 13, 2013
Setlist: Too Too Too Fast/Shadowcasting/Binary Mind/Oh, La/Beta Love/Angel, Please/Too Dramatic/St. Peter’s Day Festival/Is It Too Much/Dance with Me/Can You Tell/When I Dream/Run My Mouth/For Once/Ghost Under Rocks/Boy
Encore: Dying is Fine/I Shut Off

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