Last updated: February 20. 2013 4:13AM - 334 Views

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There was an unexpected intimacy to the gutted and refurbished chain restaurant on Spring Garden and 11th. As clouds of smoke spread over the heads dotting a full house on Thursday, Jan. 24, Philadelphia??s Union Transfer felt less like an ex-Spaghetti Warehouse and more like a vast, rustic cellar hosting well-oiled basement buzz bands. Only, in this case, the bands were acclaimed baroque-poppers-gone-beat-droppers Ra Ra Riot and shimmering indie rockers Guards.
Fingers of green light shot from the center stage drum kit as Guards led a foggy, fuzz rock opening to the night??s show. ??Our homies in Ra Ra Riot had us warm you up so you don??t hurt yourselves,? joked Richie James Follin, swinging his curtain of dark hair. The Guards frontman bore resemblance to his sister, Cults chanteuse Madeline Follin.
Joined by a touring band, Follin??s distant vocals and muted-then-wailing guitar, Loren Humphrey??s crashing cymbals, and Kaylie Church??s spirited omnichord had the crowd dancing and successfully warmed up for the headliners.
Ra Ra Riot played an 18-song set, which blended all three albums and highlighted most of their latest LP, ??Beta Love,? released just days before their Philly show. ??This is like hump day in our release week,? singer Wes Miles mused. ??It??s been a while since we??ve been on the road. We??re very excited to be here!?
The quintet, which formed at Syracuse University in 2006, has maintained most of its original members with the exception of their recent parting with cellist Alexandra Lawn and the tragic death of drummer John Pike. Naturally, their music has experienced flux, and while their albums are distinct, their performance at Union Transfer was cohesive with a consistent energy that made specific albums indistinguishable.
The quintet ?? touring with a guest cellist ?? began promoting their third studio album with an international tour, hitting Philly early on. Miles playfully called to the audience ?? ??Hopefully you guys have had a chance to buy it and memorize the lyrics and melodies,? ?? as he entreated the crowd to sing along to ??Beta Love.? Audience members were familiar enough to sway and chant along to each song; ??Binary Mind,? the first song they played off ??Beta Love,? shot adrenaline through the venue.
Ra Ra Riot animated the stage and engaged Union Transfer. Their live performance added dimension to their new songs, leaving the recordings a bit flat in comparison; i.e. ??When I Dream? was slowed down to a simmering, steady heat punctuated by Miles snapping in time and supporting vocals from violinist Rebecca Zeller. The standout, spectacular ensemble piece of the evening was ??Beta Love? instahit ??Dance with Me.? Bassist Mathieu Santos and drummer Kenny Bernard led a heavy low end, synching with Zeller??s opening chord on the keys. Her hair whipped back and forth as she sang and steadied the synth beat. Guitarist Milo Bonacci stirred up the energy while Miles bounced across the stage, manifesting each high note in his movement. Everyone onstage contributed to the electric harmonies of ??Dance with Me.?
Crowd favorites from earlier albums included bouncy, string-spiked anthem ??Boy? from 2010??s ??The Orchard,? the swelling orchestral intro and haunting melodies of ??Ghost Under Rocks? from their debut ??Ra Ra Riot,? and uptempo ballad ??Can You Tell? off their self-titled album, complete with Santos swinging his bass, tossing the neck upward, and being met by Miles in a fraternal mid-song embrace.
The most commanding throwback song of the night was the incredibly catchy ??Dying is Fine,? made popular by their breakout album, ??The Rhumb Line.? The e. e. cummings-inspired tune was the first encore of the night. Miles returned to the stage with a pair of glasses and a serious Vibratto. The band built a steady energy, which rose to a charged instrumental, echoed by the crowd??s handclaps. Miles moved from the crowd??s outstretched hands to the keys as cymbals crashed, bass and guitar surged, bows danced, and harmonies fed into a radiant chaos.
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