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Ra Ra Riot + The Antlers

(5 Feb 2010: Brooklyn Academy of Music — Brooklyn, NY)

The Brooklyn Academy of Music has been a cultural centerpiece in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn for over a century. According to Wikipedia, the BAM was founded in 1861 in Brooklyn Heights to host musical performances to high society before it burnt to the ground in the winter of 1903. Five years later, the performance hall was expanded to play to a much larger crowd, moving a bit further down the street in the up and coming Fort Greene neighborhood. Since then, the space has been expanded to include a café and a movie theater, showcasing independent movies and art house fare.  The hall is incredibly well-preserved and remains a special venue to catch any theatrical or musical performance. This evening is the third and final night of the Sounds Like Brooklyn music festival.


But this begs the most obvious of questions…what does Brooklyn sound like? Take a walk down the catwalk of Bedford Ave. in Williamsburg and you get an idea what the “trustafarian” Brooklynite dresses like. Get a slice of pie at Grimaldi’s in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge and you get a representation of its cuisine. But in a city full of so many diverse artistic visions, dabbling in a handful of musical genres, I am unsure who one would invite to play this party. For the past two weekends, the BAM has played host to an array of Brooklyn performers across the board ranging from Les Savy Fav to Anti- Pop Consortium. This final evening boasts sets from headliners Ra Ra Riot and opening act, The Antlers.


It is a promising sight to see so many seats already occupied during The Antlers’ set. It is a rarity, especially in New York, for an opening band to hold the attention of its audience but then again nothing about this night is typical. In between sets, the demographic of the attendees becomes much more apparent. Most of tonight’s ticket holders appear to be hovering around the twenty-year-old range and I hear a couple of students introduce their friends to their parents in the crowd. All of them cannot stop raving about their anticipation for Ra Ra Riot’s set.


The young sextet that comprise Ra Ra Riot hails from Syracuse, New York and places a creative spin on their emotive dance pop music by adding an electric cello and violin into the mix. By the time the band takes the stage there are already fifty of the room’s youngest fans directly below the stage cheering. The enthusiasm during the set is not limited to the band’s fan base, as bassist Mathieu Santos and guitarist Milo Bonaccitheir jump around with pure unadulterated joy. It is a shame that these days it is a rare sight to see musicians who enjoy performing as much as their fans enjoy listening to them, so kudos to Ra Ra Riot.


I am immediately impressed by Santos’ playing, as he effortlessly puts together complicated bass lines that act as the perfect cushion for cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller to add extra color to the band’s sound. Lead singer Wes Miles’ voice resembles a younger, more soulful James Mercer and perfectly complements the group’s layered, anthemic Arcade Fire sound. The band debuts a handful of new songs from their upcoming release and plays two Kate Bush songs (two!!) including closing out their set with the chanteuse’s popular hit, “Hounds of Love”. I am not sure if I feft lukewarm about Ra Ra Riot’s performance because the pop they generate is so commonplace these days or because I was flat out blown away by The Antlers.


There was an obvious juxtaposition in the two band’s sounds but The Antlers seemed like a better fit for this stage than the baroque pop of RRR. In full disclosure, Hospice, The Antlers debut from last year, was one of my favorite albums of 2009. It was a personal meditation on guilt, love and sickness; a masochist reads from a journal as he watches someone die of cancer, ruminating on the cancer that eats at their relationship as much as the victim’s bones. Concept albums are a difficult sell these days, but Hospice found universal critical acclaim for this one-time solo project turned three piece band. Tonight, The Antlers are accompanied by a two person horn section and the songs are entirely re-imagined from their recorded counterparts.


Lead singer Peter Silberman’s falsetto was made to bounce off the walls of this room.  The band adds a handful of layers to the song when playing them live, with guitar feedback and keyboards acting as major components to the stories told within the songs. Some of the song’s outros segue into impromptu jams, cradled by heavy reverb, clashing cymbals and howling vocal harmonies. But Silberman’s voice was nothing short of outstanding. On the record he plays it extremely restrained; telling his story in hushed whispers (“Bear”)  and the occasional emotive scream ( the awesome chorus of “Sylvia”). The room was deafeningly silent during the hushed moments of his performance and his masterful control of voice reminds me of a young Jeff Buckley (before you accuse me of hyperbole, I urge you to close your eyes when listening to this man perform. I, too, find musical comparisons like that lazy but he is the first singer in a long while whose pipes rival Buckley’s).


It appeared that The Antlers made an impression on even those unfamiliar with their catalogue as various people left their seats to go stand below them in the pit area for the remainder of their set. The band played select tracks from Hospice in succession to tell the story of the relationship’s demise in chronological order. And like any good story, Silberman keeps his audience enthralled by the way he chooses to tell it, never resorting to telling the tale the same way twice.

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