I’m never sure which concerts will sell out. Sometimes I sniff some hype in the air, and a show fills up with fans eager to hear the next big thing. Sometimes I think the music’s great, and then almost no one shows up. On Friday at Schubas, at least two of the three bands, Ra Ra Riot and the Virgins, seemed to have some buzz, but both of those bands have only an EP to their credit so far. Is that enough to draw a crowd? Apparently so. It did sell out. Both bands are on the verge of releasing full-length albums. The first band of the night, Essex Chanel, also seemed to have something of a following, judging from the enthusiastic friends/fans at the front of the place, though their somewhat techno ’80s-style pop wasn’t really my cup of tea.
Ra Ra Riot’s self-titled EP from last year is a nice, if modest, little collection of songs. The production is a little plain, but there’s a forthright quality about the singing and the arrangements that appeals to me. It just sounds honest. It also sounds to me like the sort of self-produced small-label records that indie bands put out in the mid-1980s, back when everyone was trying to become the next R.E.M. One thing that I didn’t really pick up on with Ra Ra Riot until seeing the band live was the importance of the string players. The cello and violin are almost the lead instruments, but Ra Ra Riot doesn’t really sound that much like lush orchestral pop. It’s more like a string quartet than an orchestra. And Ra Ra Riot was quite lively in concert, with the sort of stage roaming and hair flailing that you’d expect at… (OK, here comes the clichéd rock-critic comparison that you’ve been bracing for – sorry!) … an Arcade Fire concert. Ra Ra Riot played all of the EP and some new songs that sounded promising. For the first time ever, the band did two encores, closing out the night with a cool cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love.”