My friend Tim from Seattle recommended Ra Ra Riot to me a couple of years ago. He’s one of those guys like me who still make mix tapes (okay, CDs now, soon to be Spotify lists?). We do this each year to introduce friends to our favorite music, to recommend new or old bands, and their albums or singles. Ra Ra Riot, a danceable type of “indie rock with strings” outfit hails from Syracuse, New York. They struck me immediately as an infectious upbeat act featuring talented musicians, electric and acoustic instruments and vocalist, multi-instrumentalist Wes Miles. This remarkable singer is able to hit soaring soulful notes in a high tenor register, and has a beautiful falsetto technique, clear and strong. The musicians joining him include Mathieu Santos (bass), Milo Bonacci (guitar), Rebecca Zeller (violin) and Kenny Bernard (drums).They have been together for ten years, and just released their fourth album, Need Your Light. Take a listen to opening track “Water” to catch their sound. Then try the older track Tim included on the CD mix, “Boy” from their 2011 album The Orchard. It’s definitely more like the band Capital Cities than The National!
In concert at the Independent theater, in San Francisco, March 27, 2016, the band was in top form, clearly healthy, joyous and well rehearsed. The set list included most of the songs from the new album, and they sounded terrific live, remarkably close to the studio recordings, but with that extra presence and pumped up energy live performance can bring. On stage, a guest cello player filled in for departed member Alexandra Lawn, adding heft to the strings led by multi-instrumentalist Zeller. And, yes they played “Boy” to enthusiastic dancing and applause.
Standing there listening to the band, I was thinking about how few indie rock and recent alt rock bands have this kind of cheerful sound. Been listening to a lot of Radiohead, Muse, The National, and others who are really moodier and darker. It had me thinking about the 1980s music scene, and the dark and light ends of the spectrum, represented most notably by the likes of The Smiths (dark), and Bow Wow Wow (light). Given Wes Miles’ voice, I was reminded most of the band Split Enz and the solo work of their founder, Tim Finn.
New Zealand band Split Enz began very differently than it ended. They started out in 1972, featuring Phil Judd and Tim Finn as leaders of an art rock, vaudeville act, adorned in outrageous costumes and matching stage antics. Once brother Neil Finn joined in 1980, they transformed their music to focus more on a rock, pop and new wave sound. The two Finn’s and their band created some of the most adventurous music of that era, producing four fabulous albums True Colors (1980), Waiata / Corroboree (1981), Time and Tide (1982), and their masterpiece Conflicting Emotions (1983) at which point Tim left the band to start a solo career. For those down under, and for fans like me, the two brothers together were like Lennon/McCartney, such were their compositions, and the contrast in their perfectly paired voices. Neil led the group to produce one final album, appropriately titled See Ya ‘Round (1984) then going on to form the popular band Crowded House. Neil is certainly one of the greatest singer/songwriters on the planet. But for now, let’s focus on Tim who came so strongly to my mind during the Ra Ra Riot show.
Tim Finn’s compositions and lead vocals on Conflicting Emotions and his first album Escapade (1983) are soulful and inspirational. His soaring tenor voice is one of the most dazzling instruments in the business. That first solo album, which is very light, breezy compared to his other work, was followed by the more assertive, instrumentally varied albums Big Canoe (1986, my favorite), and self-titled Tim Finn (1989) for which he hired nearly all of Peter Gabriel’s early 80s band (did you not know that, I bet not!) Best to take a listen to the title track from Conflicting Emotions (if you don’t like the mysterious intro, meant to invoke emotional confusion, skip to minute 1:30), or the song “In A Minor Key“ or “I Only Want to Know” from Escapade. Fantastic.
Last time I saw Tim Finn live was also at The Independent. It was an amazing show from start to finish. This enduring talent continues to record and perform today. The Ra Ra Riot concert at the same venue ten years later, was similarly inspirational and I will be following them going forward, starting at this summer’s Outside Lands festival, where they will be on the bill with Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, and Air among many others. Highly recommended.