Apr 19, 2016
A Decade In, Ra Ra Riot Are Still Shining
It’s one of those days in Geneva, New York, when you feel like sky has never been bluer. When you’re brimming with energy and ambition because the sun is filling your soul like a full glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. You just have to feel good. Last Saturday Ra Ra Riot’s tour bus was nestled in the corner of the asphalt parking lot of the Cracker Factory, where the owners of the converted factory, Amy and Brandon, are working on their motorbikes and prepping the venue for the night’s show with PWR BTTM. It’s the last night of the tour.
It’s been six years and two albums since Ra Ra Riot performed here last (fellow upstate starters Phantogram opened then), but their connection with the Cracker Factory is still strong. Guitarist Milo Bonacci, who used to play with Geneva’s own Gym Class Heroes, goes way back with family friends Amy and Brandon. Not only do they own the venue, but they hosted the band at their orchard in Penn Yan (not too far from Geneva), where RRR wrote and demoed their second album, The Orchard, in 2010.
At 5:30, the merch is already set up at one end of the hall, and PWR BTTM are sound checking for the 7:30 show. Bonacci, in a matching helmet, rides one of the blue bikes around the empty parking lot, kicking up dust into a cloud around him. Violinist Rebecca Zeller grabs her headphones in the tour bus for a run around the neighborhood. Bassist Mathieu Santos and singer Wes Miles sit side by side on the cushiony seats in their massive RV, reminiscing about the first time they visited the Cracker Factory.
“I remember when they first bought it,” Santos said, with his hands in his lap. He’s wearing a green button-down and light-washed jeans, but he left off his signature grandpa glasses. “It was abandoned. It’s been cool coming back over the years because I remember walking through it with them when they first bought it. The entire top floor was just a bunch of chairs. Every time we come back there are new additions.”
They’ve reached the end of a seven-week tour to promote their fourth and newest album, Need Your Light, the happiest and brightest work from the band to date. Since their beginnings at Syracuse University 10 years ago, they’ve departed from 2008’s the Rhumb Line’s yearning, haunted baroque pop to Need Your Light’s sunny synth pop. The strings that set them apart are still there, but in a more supportive role. Their latest album focuses more on an electronic sound and the overwhelming anthemic lyrics that could make the grumpiest dude more optimistic if he took them to heart. It’s all about absorbing life’s highs and falling head over heels in love and other cheesy cliches. And if Need Your Light had to be represented by a day, today would be it.
Miles looks like he’s ready for a run too–kitted out in a crew neck sweater and shorts–and it’s almost like staying in the tour bus is a sin. But he and Santos are nearly in decompression mode now, and after the gig–and a celebratory night out at Geneva dive bar Side Show–they’ll be going their separate ways until they have to meet back up for a few more one-off shows. More than anything, self-care is more important to them than killing themselves over a career. Santos already has a list of things he’s ready to do when he heads out to see family in Massachusetts the next day: “Watching a lot of playoff hockey with my dad, hanging out with my sister and brother-in-law, getting into trouble with them, hitting up my favorite dives back home, probably a lot of bike rides.” Miles has some time with his niece booked and a little yard work to do in his Greenpoint home.
For a while RRR were a Brooklyn band, but on Need Your Light, they worked remotely. Zeller lives in Seattle now; Bonacci in Milwaukee; Santos in Beacon, N.Y.; Miles and drummer Kenny are the only ones who still live in the city. If they decide to record another LP, they’ll probably visit each other again, Miles said. “We’re not really worried about it. It’s more about being where we want to be individually, that our personal lives are more important to making the things in the band work. We have to be happy with the rest of our life too.”
String lights hanging from the Cracker Factory’s white, wooden beams make the second floor space look like a dream indie wedding venue. Everyone’s sipping on white wine or $4 Genesee cans. The kids from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in town wear their hoodies and baseball caps, while the Ithaca kids from the other end of the Finger Lakes wrap their crop-topped bodices in thrifted shawls. Amy is working behind the bar. She watches as the artsy Geneva crowd hold tiny little friend reunions.
Fans lining the stage are Beatles-level hysteric when PWR BTTM goes on at 9. Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce play a longer-than-normal set, mixing in songs like “Dairy Queen” in with their “cunty banter.” Hopkins, sparkly makeup and cut-out dress on, goes into various vulnerable states throughout the show, letting the last night sink in by proclaiming in between every song that “I swear I wasn’t going to get emotional” or “I was so happy playing guitar just now.” Later on, Hopkins would be dancing along with the rest of us.
When it’s their time, Ra Ra Riot step into their spots with game faces and the sort of nonchalance that doesn’t give away the level of party that’s about to erupt. Opening with “Too Too Too Fast,” they provide longtime fans something to bounce to. In fact, they keep their set list an even balance of older tunes and newer ones, giving everyone the opportunity to either sing breathlessly along or dance until their calves were sore–or both.
White lights come at the stage at all directions, making it photoshoot ready. A fan blows Zeller’s blonde hair as if she were Beyonce. It’s glamorous, it’s nonstop; and we’re all so close it’s almost as if the everyone in the room was a part of the band. Miles spills his smooth falsetto into the mic, clutching it as if it were his last hope. Santos cozies up to his bandmates, effortlessly thumping out the vibrating bassline of “Boy.” Zeller saws vigorously into her violin, shaving the strings of her bow off until they becoming fly-away hairs. Bonacci cracks his poker face as he looks out at the hometown crowd. Just like their personal lives, each member of the band does their own thing, but when it comes together it’s synchronous and beautiful–almost as if it shouldn’t work but it does.
Any weariness they were feeling on the tour bus is now gone. There’s sweat. A lot of it. PWR BTTM’s Hopkins runs out of nowhere for a stage dive, staying afloat until giving up to jump around with the rest.
“Absolutely,” a song that Pitchfork said is a “moment that cloys,” is the climax of the show. When it comes to the sweet optimism of Need Your Light, you have take what’s given and use it as fuel to forget any shitty stuff going on in your life and just, as Eminem would put it, lose yourself. “It’s the year of absolutely being / absolutely nothing / Absolutely crushing absolutely everything/ Absolutely loving, absolutely loving/ Absolutely loving, absolutely,” Miles croons in all his exuberance.
They finish off with Need Your Light’s title track, leaving some people walking out of the show saying they had an out-of-body experience. The Gennys have washed away any hesitation, and now, with PWR BTTM bobbing along with us, the whole second floor of Cracker Factory is rioting around the lyrics, repeating Ra Ra Riot’s mantra over and over: “I need your light, I need your light.” The white lights get brighter and there’s a wash of blues, purples and pinks swirling around the stage. Arms are flailing in the air and we’re all fully charged, moving as one.
“Crazy things can happen in Upstate New York,” Miles says onstage. They do, and in fact, they already have. All we had to do was to let a little light in.
All photographs by Emilee Lindner.
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