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Concert Review: WBRU's Birthday Bash

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence hosted Passion Pit, The Joy Formidable, Ra Ra Riot and Wednesday night.

Concert Review: WBRU's Birthday Bash

My sister lives in Providence, Rhode Island. I probably haven’t gotten up to visit her enough, but every time I visit the city I enjoy myself thoroughly. Compared to the hustle and bustle of New York, Providence is so much more relaxing. It’s so much easier to get around, things are quieter, and there is just serenity about the place that is calming.

While the nightlife options aren’t as expansive the concrete jungle where dreams are made of, plenty still goes on, especially on the music side. Providence has a great music scene. They have the Dunkin Donuts Center for the stadium and arena acts/large tours, but places like the Met and Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel play host to the small-to-midsized  acts. The Newport Folk Fest takes place not too far from the city’s borders. The area knows culture.

I have seen many great shows over the last five years there: Franz Ferdinand with Born Ruffians, Providence’s own Deer Tick, Foals with Freelance Whales and The Naked and Famous, Bright Eyes and Dr. Dog. But Wednesday night’s show easily topped those. I attended local radio station WBRU’s annual Birthday Bash at Lupo's. The stacked lineup featured local group Rice Cakes, Ra Ra Riot, The Joy Formidable, and headliners Passion Pit.

How old is WBRU, Southern New England's top alternative rock radio station located in Providence? 43 years old, so you knew they were going to have to blow it out. My sister attended last year’s birthday bash, which featured The Naked and Famous, Young the Giant, and Matt & Kim as the headliner. She said it was an incredible show, and having seen all of them live myself, I’m sure it was spectacular. This year’s lineup excited me a great deal.   I hadn’t seen any of these acts but had heard positive things about their shows.  None of the bands let me down.

We arrived at Lupo's at around a quarter after 7 p.m.  Lines to scan tickets still were nearly stretching outside.  People wanted to arrive early for this one.  By the time we had finished bathroom and ATM runs and had settled in behind the sound booth on the lower level, the first act, Rice Cakes, was nearly finished.  The pit in front of the stage is rather expansive, then gives way to a middle level with bars and booths that stretches to the back.  We were right between that pit and middle level and had a great view of all the performances.  We heard only one song by this interesting group, but it was still impressive.  They have a smooth, quirky, jazzy, funky sound about them with strong female vocals by Roz Raskin.  I wish I had heard more, but I'm glad I at least got to catch them.  I'm sure I will catch them around Providence somewhere down the line.

As the venue continued to fill up, Ra Ra Riot proceeded to take the stage.  The band underwent a big change this year after the departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn.  I wondered what the group would look like on stage since strings are such an integral part of their sound.  They still featured a cellist on stage, though I didn't know who it was, and they still kept the main tenants of their earlier material.  Something seemed slightly off with the sound.  Lead singer Wes Miles has such a beautiful voice, but often it seemed to be overpowered by the rest of the instruments.  Maybe things sounded differently nearer to the stage, but from my vantage point things just sounded off.

Other than that, the group put on a highly spirited show.  Their music is pleasant.  Miles' voice, combined with the bouncy rhythms and the violin/cello mixed in, just makes you happy.  The group bounces around on stage, sometimes in unison, to the beat.  It's a really fun performance to take in, cute in some ways, and they definitely kept the night moving right along.

Lupo's has a capacity of approximately 1,500 people, and by the time The Joy Formidable took the stage, it was feeling about that full.  People vying for a better position tried to squeeze in to small slivers of space, and the crowd slowly pushed its way closer and closer.  With The Joy Formidable rocking the roof off the building, it's no reason people were trying to get as close as they could.  This band is legit.

With only one full-length album out, 2011's The Big Roar, this group has a ton going for it.  For starters, their sound is intoxicating.  They produce a thick, heavy, sound-driven mixture filled with double-pedal action on the bass drums, pre-recorded sound, blistering guitar/bass lines, and infectious vocals from singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan.  Plus, her name is Ritzy.  That's one of the coolest names a woman fronting a band could have.

Their live show only adds to the quality of their music.  Seeing Bryan, bass player Rhydian Dafydd, and drummer Matt Thomas go absolutely apeshit on stage  is so exhilarating.  You can't help but thrash around a little bit with them.  Their opening song, "The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade," the closing song on their debut.  It has such a distinctive opening hook, then everything drops in.  Everyone's attention was promptly grabbed.

Bryan kept it all set long with old songs like "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie" and "Cradle" along with newer tracks like "Cholla" and "This Ladder Is Ours."  They ended with "Whirring," and the performance matched the song's title.  As many of their songs do, the sound sort of devolved into a massive blur of hectic and increasingly heavy sound.  That's when Bryan and Dafydd started getting physical on stage, ramming into one another, tossing light kicks, even a head butt from Bryan.  Members of the audience started crowd-surfing.  Arms went up and down with the drum kicks.  It was so cool to watch unfold.  Then Bryan hopped into the crowd, guitar in hand, and continued to wail on it.  When she hopped back up on stage, they handed her the guitar.  She handed it right back, then said something into the microphone that I couldn't quite decipher.  But if what I saw was correct, she just gave away one of her guitars.  So awesome.

They played just seven songs, but that was more than enough to work the crowd into a frenzy.  I can't even imagine how worked up I would get during a full set from this group.  It would be epic, that's for sure.  They would have been the highlight of the evening had it not been for headliner Passion Pit.

At close to 10:20 (after a longer-than-usual wait between sets), Passion Pit finally took the stage.  Michael Angelakos started things off with "Take A Walk," the unofficial anthem for Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Tacos.  The overplaying of that song in those ads almost ruined it for me.  Almost, until the band themselves saved it with a stirring live performance of the jam.  It set such a righteous, positive tone for the rest of the night that there was nowhere to go but up for the band.

I was pleasantly surprised with Angelakos' vocal performance throughout the concert.  For the uninitiated, Passion Pit's lead singer really belts out the songs at the extremes of his upper register and falsetto.  I wondered how his voice would sound after four or five sounds.  The answer was fantastic.  I shouldn't have held doubts about a professional singer, but I did have some reservations going into it.  Not only did his voice sound great, but he did it while dancing and flying around on stage.  He went above and beyond my expectations for what I thought his performance would be.

The whole group put on an amazing show.  So many of their songs are filled with electronic flourishes that I also wondered how those studio versions would compare with the live versions.  They were very comparable, but the atmosphere was that much more electric hearing it live.  That energy shifted right to the crowd.  Lupo's turned into a full-on dance party.  It was incredible to see that massive amount of people collectively dance and crowd-surf to their old and new favorites.  And everyone was put into such a happy place because of the music.  Everyone was bouncing and jumping into random strangers, but nothing was out of bounds.  He or she would just look, smile, then more often than not join you in more frantic jumping.  Peace prevailed.

For about an hour and 20 minutes the band rolled through an impressive array of songs from Manners and Gossamer.  They saved the best for last, though.  "I'll Be Alright" was their penultimate song.  It's probably my favorite off of Gossamer and the song just comes alive in person.  They followed it up with the song that really got them going, "Sleepyhead."  Incorporated with the song were bursts of streamers from the ceiling along with bright flashes of light.  Everyone soaked it all up and just got completely lost in the song.  For their encore, they performed "Little Secrets," another gem off of Manners.  The chorus really captured the feeling of the entire evening:

"Let this be our little secret/No one needs to know we're feeling/Higher and higher and higher/Higher and higher and higher
But I feel alive, oh, I feel it in me/Up and up we keep on climbing/Higher and higher and higher/Higher and higher and higher."

If you keep having birthday parties like that, WBRU, I will be a regular attendee every year.


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