Ra Ra Riot takes the stage without their leading lady

Ra Ra Riot has gone through some tough times recently, having endured a streak of cancelled shows last November as well as the recent departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn, who cited a wish to pursue different interests.

This created an air of uncertainty surrounding last week’s rescheduled concert at the El Rey Theatre. Ra Ra Riot had not performed in two months, and no one knew if Lawn was going to appear. The two opening bands, Papa and The Submarines, impressed with their sets as the venue gradually filled with an eclectic crowd. As Blake Hazard of The Submarines wound down her set, one question hung over the crowd: How would the new look Ra Ra Riot look?

For now, the answer is “unfinished.” The band came on at a quarter past ten, Lawn-less, and dove into a rendition of “Too Too Too Fast” — a great choice for an opener.  It abounded with energy and musicianship, driven by lead vocalist Wes Miles’ charismatic, ephemeral singing. The song got the crowd bustling immediately.  It was telling, however, that the band chose a song without the usual string section involved: no violin and certainly no cello.

“St. Peter’s Day Festival,” the band’s next song, was a different story. As Rebecca Zeller switched from keyboards to her more customary violin, the absence of Lawn was made very noticeable: a replacement cello player appeared on the far right of the stage to accompany Zeller.

The replacement was perfectly adequate, but the divide present on the stage was glaring. All the remaining members of the band — except the drummer, of course — were up on their feet, shifting about, switching instruments, dancing and swaying to their own irresistible rhythm.

Contrasted to these four was the replacement member: not moving, not sharing in their energy, but rather remaining in her seat — a constant reminder that there was a piece missing from the group. It was clear that she was someone that had been used to plug a hole rather than be involved in the dynamism that the band so embraces.

However, as the show continued, the band began to overcome this problem. Ra Ra Riot called Calder Quartet, a group of four talented violinists that was added as surprise guests, onto the stage.  The band started to get into a groove, showing off the diverse instrumentation that gives Ra Ra Riot its distinctive sound. Soaring strings, driving bass and drums, playful guitar and a sprinkle of keyboards meshed into an almost-indistinguishable blanket of sound, a perfect foundation for Miles’ lyrics to shine as the band played from both its old as well as more-recent material.

Ra Ra Riot took the crowd on a veritable tour of its body of work, almost equally dividing the setlist between material from the band’s two albums. As the quartet left, the band moved away from their more string-heavy numbers into a rousing last few pieces. Starting with “Can You Tell,” a spirited number from the band’s first album that recalls The Smiths, Ra Ra Riot started to inspire the crowd into a frenzy, continuing with “Run My Mouth” and “Ghost Under Rocks” until Miles stopped to talk to the crowd.

He acknowledged late 2011’s cancellations — but not Lawn’s departure — and thanked the crowd for their support, assuring them of that there were better things to come. After the brief pause, the band dove into what is undoubtedly its most famous track, “Boy.” In all its grandiosity, the song reminded the crowd perfectly of what the band is capable of, and soon everyone was clapping in unison to the beat.

After two encore performances, “The Orchard” and “Dying Is Fine,” the question on everyone’s mind remained. There was no way of knowing how the band would move on from losing their cellist and occasional vocalist.

But one thing was clear: The band is still very much capable of performing at a high level, and once it finds a resolution for their cello problem, there is no doubt Ra Ra Riot can reach its old heights again.