RANA | 6.12 | NYC

This was nuts. I'll try to provide a more specific description, but I don't think I can say it any better than that.

Photo by Danny Owen
RANA, for those of you who don't know, are an up-and-coming four-piece band from New Jersey with the ability to fuse powerful hard rock with dazzling improvisation, memorable original songs and offbeat covers. In the past year they have become a favored act at New York's Wetlands Preserve, and for good reason. Though they are all college-age, their chemistry and discipline would lead you to believe they are grizzled veterans who have played together for an eternity.

Actually, that's nearly accurate. Bassist Andrew Southern, keyboardist Matt Durant and drummer Ryan Thornton have been playing together since -- I am not making this up -- middle school. Versatile guitarist Scott Metzger, who joined them in 1999, sounds like he's been with them that long.

The band returned to the Wetlands on Tuesday, June 12 to headline a much-anticipated free night of music, and provided two-plus sets of fiery playing that exceeded the hype.

They continued with the rough-and-tumble approach that worked so well during their set last month at the legendary punk club CBGB, but expanded it to the epic proportions of their best Wetlands shows. The crowd was similarly epic and aggressive, as it merged the RANA die-hards from all facets of the fanbase with the more ska-punkish crowd that was there to see one of the previous bands, Rustic Overtones. The end result: an exhilarating night of take-no-prisoners rock and roll. After it was over, the floor of the club looked like it had been hit by a bomb, with debris and spilled beer everywhere. And, in a figurative sense, it had.

"This place is trashed!" exclaimed Metzger after the show. "I love it!"

Photo by Danny Owen
They opened with "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," a Talking Heads song that fits RANA ridiculously well. Its frenetic tempo and waves of drum rolls make it a perfect show opener, and Durant sang eerily like David Byrne. This song, which they recently added to their repertoire, is from the same album as "Found A Job," which they started covering last year. Could a "More Songs About Buildings And Food" cover set be far off?

Appropriately, the final strains worked their way into the opening of "Baby's Got A New Bike," which also sports the Talking Heads sound even if it's an original. This one keeps getting tighter and tighter and is quickly becoming a crowd favorite.

Next a strange guitar intro started up before the main riff of the Hendrix-influenced "I Got By" kicked in. This was heavier and denser than I had heard it before. Their shorter songs don't usually get their "wall of sound" treatment where it sounds like 8 guys onstage instead of 4, but this one did.

The "Legend of Zelda" that followed was one of the more unique ones I've heard. It seemed a bit elongated and lots more passionate. It's also a good ass-kicker for those who haven't seen the band before. Who would think to cover the theme song from a video game?

They perform Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You" in appropriate folk-rock style. This rendition was nicely and respectfully done. We'll see if they slowly increase the intensity and put their own stamp on it, as they have done with Will Oldham's "New Partner," which unfortunately was not played on this night.

A surprisingly early "Smile," a highly exploratory yet exquisitely composed multi-genred instrumental that must be considered their signature song at this stage of their career, got the crowd going bonkers. And no wonder. This one moved at a slithery pace, yet managed to have the appropriate doses of noise and groove. Every passage was explored to the fullest, and at the end Metzger broke into the full-on riff of Funkadelic's "Standing on the Verge of Getting It On," the title track to what may be their best album, which is saying a lot. As Bridget Jones would say, "mindfuckage."

The band's soulful arrangement of "Corrina," dedicated to Southern's father, and the Chuck Berry-esque original "Montel" were short and to the point, but executed with the same passion as they always are. They nicely set up a swirling "Do I Have to Ask," which was highlighted by some ungodly noises coming from Durant's Juno.

Despite belonging to the relatively unvarying genre of reggae, "Mandy Moore" seems a little bit different each time out. This time, Metzger got a little more exploratory on his solo, and Southern and Thornton played around with the tempos. I still can't believe how well they have the high-pitched harmony vocals down.

Photo by Danny Owen
I was told in advance about the surprise that would come at the end of the first set, so it was probably not as much of a shock for me as it was for the rest of the crowd when they began jamming with Rodney Speed, a Wetlands employee who was celebrating his birthday, on "American Woman" (which Rodney introduced as a Lenny Kravitz song, though the original was done by the Guess Who.) Still... whoa. This was different. They streamlined the arrangement into simple, staccato riffage while Rodney bellowed the words (sometimes in the right order and sometimes not) soulfully. But the theatrics and histrionics were not finished. Metzger and Rodney "faced off" while Metzger took his solo. As the song wound down, most of the band put down their instruments and started dancing, leaving only Rodney's last bursts of lyrics and Thornton's drums. Once again, we learned that ANYTHING can happen at a RANA event. I hope it was as fun for everybody else as it obviously was for Rodney.

The crowd had thinned out a bit by the start of the second set, as it was pretty late for a Tuesday night, and while RANA was able to lure most of the Rustic Overtones fans to stay for the whole first set, a few of them left at setbreak, leaving a still-sizable crowd of RANA die-hards for the second set.

After a hard-rocking instrumental cover of Chris Harford's "If I Can't Turn to You," Durant started that piano riff that everyone wants to hear: the intro to RANA's much-requested rap original, "Ghetto Queen." Smoothly textured and yet hilarious ("You wanna fuck? That's cool but you gotta be the greatest/Take me to Prada, buy me the latest"), I expected it to slink into "Faded," as it usually does, but they threw us a curveball and started up the riff to "Out By Tracks," a major improvisational vehicle, instead. This was another exceptional version, with some added riffage between the dissonant bridge and the beginning of the "stretch" (which is the word the band members use instead of "jam"), and one of those passages where so much electronic noise is swirling around that you can't tell what instrument everything is coming from.

Instantly I sensed that something was different about this "900 Numbers," another one of their major stretching vehicles. It was being played at a faster tempo, and Durant was talk-singing at a more brisk pace than usual. But this turned out for the best, as they pulled off one of those unbelievable stretches where they lock in to each other almost telepathically. While not as long as the definitive 3/3/01 version (traders should seek out that show for some of RANA at its best), it had that same sense of interplay, made more impressive because it was being done at a much faster pace. I am not worthy.

Photo by Danny Owen
"Palace By the Sea" was a nice way to have an interlude while still maintaining the energy, and then the band decided that the time was right for the elliptical, inscrutable "Battle of 10 Dudes" to begin. This was on its way to being a very strange, dissonant version like 3/27/01 until they morphed seamlessly into a fast hard-rock riff that took me a second to ponder before I realized it was "God." This is a song I hadn't heard in a while, and one that they don't play that often anymore, so it was quite refreshing to hear. As with "900 Numbers" they kept up a faster pace than what I was used to but still managed some challenging stretching. We thought it would just end as it wound down, but Thornton stepped up the drumbeat and all of the sudden we were into their version of "Faded," which performs the incredible feat of making a boy-band song (by the Canadian outfit Soul Decision) not only listenable but entertaining. (Their arrangement beefs up the funky parts, adds a piercing guitar solo, and dispenses with the cheesy rap.)

A strong version of the taut "Poop Jazz Fits Gerald" had even stronger audience participation -- for the final chorus, Metzger and Southern backed away from their mics and let the crowd sing the wordless lyrics by itself. Then the set came to an end with a tight, twisting "This Machine," but not before one final surprise, as toward the end Metzger busted out the riff to "Push It" by Salt-n-Pepa. The band has said that there is nothing that can't ever be a RANA song, and here we had yet more evidence of that.

It was now past 2 AM and everyone was exhausted. But not the band, apparently. A first-timer came up to me (correctly sensing from my writing down the setlist that I was a RANA veteran) and asked how long their encores are. "Well," I told her, "I've seen them do one song, I've seen them do several songs, and I've seen them do enough to call it a whole 'nother set. So I can't really predict what they'll do."

Well, we got the "whole 'nother set" option.

Thornton and Metzger emerged, Metzger seated with an acoustic guitar (which may have been a first for him on a RANA stage) and Thornton standing at a vocal mic, for the forlorn country weeper "Sad Songs." Until recently, I had mistakenly thought that this was an original instead of a cover, as they really are capable of writing songs this good.

On the rare occations when RANA performs "Sad Songs," it usually appears as the last or only song in an encore, so I wondered if that was it. But they were not even close to being done. They reconvened to dedicate the next song to the late Bobby Sheehan, who would have been 33 on that day. As soon as they started playing the chugging "Weavin' Stephen," it struck me as appropriate. I hadn't really thought about it before, but the opening riff does sound somewhat Blues Traveler-ish.

The rest of the half-hour "set" (was it a third set or a first encore? You make the call), except for the breather of Prince's ballad "Pop Life," was nothing but hard rock after hard rock, as if they were testing their limits of endurance and energy. Just when you thought they would end the affair, they jump-started yet another rocker. In a set that had already seen "Weavin' Stephen," "Carson Daly," "Backstage Pass" and "Baker," toward the end of the latter I wondered whether they would continue with their other hard rock song conspicuous by its absence, "Silver Not Gold." Sure enough, they segued right into it. Then in rock-star fashion, they were gone again and leaving the crowd bellowing for even more.

It is very, very rare for a showcase event like this one to be lacking the spooky "Your Brain Will Change," one of their finest compositions and improvisational vehicles, not to mention the title track of the six-song EP that they released last month. So they rectified that by trotting it out for the second encore (or first encore after a third set, whichever you prefer). This was a nasty, stinging one in the tradition of 11/28/00. And finally, what better way to cap off a rawk-fest than with the Nirvana-ish "Olafe," which must have gotten Durant's testosterone flowing because by the end he was throwing stuff at Thornton's drum kit.

Whew. It was now 2:45 AM and they were finally done. Just when you thought they couldn't dazzle you anymore, they exceed your expectations. This is why I have seen them 17 times (this show put them ahead of Phish for band that I have seen the most) and will continue to see them whenever I can.

Erik Swain
JamBase NYC Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 6/14/01]

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