We all knew this was going to be a special night. The announcement that New York City's historic Wetlands Preserve was closing had been made a few days earlier and RANA, who was one of the final bands that club management took under its wings, would be playing its final headlining show there.
Combine that with it being the first date of RANA's first bona fide tour, and one could not help but think of this show as the end of one era and the start of another. For 24 dates in over a year and a half since their first Wetlands show on January 6, 2000, the venue had provided a nurturing environment for them as they developed their sound, learned to take risks, and grew more and more confident as musicians and performers. You don't need me to point it out for you to understand the symbolism of the nurturing environment being taken away as RANA makes its first major venture out into the rest of the world.
Needless to say, expectations were incredibly high. Ridiculously high. And yet RANA exceeded them. Not just met, but exceeded. Shattered, in fact. To the point that this performance was not only the best RANA event to date, but one of the best concerts I have seen, ever, by anyone, and that means it's counted among my best experiences with Phish, Neil Young and all the other rock gods
that I worship. In the first set they said: we rock. In the second set they said: we stretch. In the (four!!!) encores they said: we are insane.
Why were they able to turn in the best performance of their lives when it counted the most? What sets RANA apart in my mind from almost all other bands in the improvisational music scene is that they MATTER. By that, I mean that they produce a reaction far deeper than "dood, their jams just blow me away!" (Of course, they do that too.) They play music as if their lives depend on it, and the emotion and passion and fierceness and fearlessness of each performance give you the sense that something major is at stake, regardless of what that may be. But yet their sense of fun and their understanding of entertainment value keeps it from becoming too ponderous and pretentious. These are traits of the very best rock and roll. RANA has the potential to matter in the way that Pearl Jam matters, that Neil Young matters, that Springsteen matters, that The Clash mattered, that The Who mattered. There's something about them that touches the depths of your soul, and it has nothing to do with how many notes they play and how complex their arrangements are. If you understand all this, you will understand why the management of Wetlands was so enthusiastic about and supportive of this band, and therefore why this event was so important.
The show drew a large crowd for a weekday performance by a non-national (yet) band. For me, it had the feeling of a family reunion, as people I have met over the past year and a half from all walks of the RANA fanbase showed up. We all understood the significance of the event, and we were all prepared for an incredible time, but I don't think a single one of us expected RANA to take it to the level that they did.
We could tell something different was in the air when the boys -- guitarist Scott Metzger, bassist Andrew Southern, keyboardist Matt Durant and drummer Ryan Thornton -- all came out onstage wearing shades. After a few fog blasts and some grandiose sound effects, the unmistakable warble of "I want my M-T-V" emerged. Southern did his best Mark Knopfler growl (and Metzger did a remarkably good job on the ridiculously high Sting harmony vocals) while the band soared its way through a never-before-played cover of "Money for Nothing." Just so we got the point, they followed it up with one of the more emphatic versions of their own odd take on the MTV phenomenon,
"Carson Daly." Of course a band that incorporates as many random pop culture references as RANA does would have to acknowledge MTV's 20th birthday. Strong renditions of "Hashpipe," a cover of a song by a band that was made famous by MTV, and "Ghetto Queen," a twisted take on contemporary pop and urban trends, completed the picture.
The darting funk of "Do I Have to Ask" and the spacey reggae of "Mandy Moore" displayed another of RANA's strengths. These are songs that ostensibly belong to one musical category, but in RANA's hands, they sometimes move into entirely different categories. "Do I Have to Ask" in particular is a chameleon, starting out as an '80s soundalike but having funk, rock, prog and other incarnations in its year of existence, while never failing to dazzle with its insistent beats and soaring guitar work. This version seemed to have a little bit of all that, which was entirely appropriate for the occasion. As
for "Mandy Moore," well, there's another random pop culture reference for ya. My money is on the song outlasting the subject.
Next it was time for Durant to become possessed by David Byrne, for the Talking Heads cover "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" and the Heads-inspired original "Baby's Got a New Bike." That the former is a taut, energized rocker while the latter is a rhythmically propulsive stretch number says a lot about the diversity of both bands.
This was my first time hearing "Skin and Bones." The lyrics, from what I could make of them, seem to be about geek lust, and the melody is buoyant, but the stretch is intricately simple, deceptively repetitive, with changes in dynamics coming slowly and subtly. Or not so subtly at the end when Metzger teased "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida."
The best versions of the stomping, mostly instrumental "Poop Jazz Fits Gerald" are the ones with the most audience participation. By that standard this was the best version ever. The crowd bellowed the
wordless lyrics and inspired the band to pound it just a little bit harder. To say that the energy was unbelievable would be a gross understatement.
"Ring in the Sand" is the kind of thing I was talking about when I gave you all that rock and roll theory a few paragraphs above. This song achieves transcendence without "showing off" musically, which is something you almost never see in the jamband scene. The driving guitars, the humming keys, the insistent melody, the yearning singing, and most crucially the dazzling, thunderous interplay in the rhythm section all combine to give you goosebumps and exalt "Yes! I believe!" even if you're not exactly sure what you're believing in. This fast and powerful version was a perfect set closer.
Even if they pride themselves on being a rock and roll band, RANA can
improvise with the best of them, and the second set showed that in spades. They sent that message loud and clear by opening with one of their prime vehicles for stretching out, "900 Numbers." From 9/2/00
(its debut) to 3/3/01 to 6/12/01, some of RANA's very best moments at Wetlands have come from explorations of this song, and here was no exception. This performance was a great example of the incredible chemistry that these four have, as they melded together and maintained an astounding momentum throughout.
In the midst of his passionate soloing, Metzger broke a string and left the stage to change guitars, so the other three carried on with Taj Mahal's "Corrina," Durant's ad-libbing producing some fascinating vocal gymnastics. Another thing that makes RANA distinctive in the improv scene is their fantastic singing ability, which is at times sorely lacking elsewhere in the movement. I would venture to say
that Southern's haunting empathy and Durant's incredible range make them among the best singers in all of jamband-land while Metzger
more than makes up in emotion what he lacks in technique. As for Thornton, he sings awfully well for a drummer.
"This Machine" had been making incredible strides lately, and this version was just as fascinating as the breakthrough 7/6/01 performance. It was the kind of stretched pasage where the band becomes egoless, where everyone leads, and yet no one does. Southern and Thornton set the tone with subtle shifts in rhythm, while
Metzger and Durant played off it, sometimes blending in and sometimes
sticking out. All the while, there was a persistent sense of direction from the band (which is not always easy to do when loud dynamics are not being employed) and massive dancing from the audience.
With the "A game" level having been reached, it was time to unleash "Smile." Many of the best versions are the ones that take their time in each section, rooting around for a kernel of something that may not have been noticed before, and then moving on seamlessly to the next segment, all the while keeping the energy level up so the crowd can feed off of it. This one took that practice to an extreme, with a jam of Funkadelic's "Standing on the Verge of Getting It On" thrown in for good measure. It had to have been one of the longest, most exploratory versions of their longest, most exploratory song. Toward the end, the band departed from the structure altogether and let out a collective instrumental wail. Frankly, if that didn't move you, you have no soul. Luckily, everyone in the audience was moved.
Prince's "Pop Life" was the perfect way to chill down after the madness of "Smile," but thanks to Chris Harford's arrangement that the band employs, "Pop Life" only lets up on the volume, not the emotion.
"Smile" may be the quintessential RANA song, but you could also argue for "Your Brain Will Change." It combines power, freakiness and stunning improvisation into an irresistable package, and when it is on, it makes you believe that this band has no limits. This, despite a recent slight rearrangement, was one of those versions. The bass and drums sounded particularly ominous, the guitar solos sounded particularly stinging, and the keyboards sounded particularly murky (which is a good thing on this song because it's about the confusion you get that results from a bad relationship). The hope and faith that things will be OK don't come from the lyrics, but rather the instrumental surges at the end, as they make you realize you can stamp out your problems and move on if you're in the right frame of mind. Here, with each surge, Southern would scream "Whoa! Yeah!" as
he and the rest of us got caught up in the energy. You know it's great when they get carried away like that.
The room was in a total frenzy by this point, and as a result the "Out By Tracks" was over the top. I had been waiting for a version to match the monster they unleashed on 12/31/00. This was twice as good. As the jamming got louder and tighter, Andrew started bellowing "Jimmy!", and with each "Jimmy" chant, the stretch went to a new level, until it got so worked up that it resembled a runaway train and the chanting evolved into a vocal jam. Meanwhile, the crowd either danced like mad or stood there in amazement, pondering, "What the HELL?!?!" But these words don't do it justice. It was a simply magical moment that has to be heard to be believed. Not only was this
by far the best "Out by Tracks," it was one of the best things they've EVER done, right up there with the 3/3/01 "900 Numbers" and a handful of "Smile"s and "Bus on By"s. Intensity, groove, majesty, zaniness and humor all combined for the kind of performance that most bands would give their amps to be able to do for 5 seconds. Please listen for yourself when the discs circulate.
They followed this with their newest instrumental stunner, "Whenever You Can." It's spacey without being directionless, prog-y without being pretentious, and liable to melt your mind if you're in the right mood. You need impeccable timing to pull this song off, and RANA delivered even though I'm sure they were still feeling the rush from the last two songs. When listening, I was reminded a lyric from Radiohead: "Everything in its right place." That's what it was here.
After devoting most of the set to their improv side, RANA decided it was time to rock again, so for the set closer they summoned up "Silver Not Gold." Also up was Meztger's friend Karen, who inspired the song. She jumped onstage to do a suggestive dance with him, which inspired him to solo with the guitar behind his head, and while lying on the floor. This was a blast in more ways than one.
As if you hadn't guessed from my exhortations, the second set was the best set I have ever seen RANA play. Several songs broke major ground and all of them proved that RANA deserves whatever hype it may be getting. This is the set you will want to play for your friends if you are trying to convince them that RANA is All That.
Another thing that sets RANA apart is that they do things other bands
wouldn't even dream of. Like cover a boy-band song and make it rock. That is what they do with Soul Decision's "Faded," and a smooth, slinky version opened the encore. Next came the inscrutable "Battle of 10 Dudes," which appears to meander along pleasantly until they do something that bites you in the posterior (or gets it moving).
So far, RANA had played a show that could have held its own in an arena, so naturally they broke out their most arena-rock song, "The Storm," which had returned only the previous weekend from a six-month absence. The fog and the lights employed further convinced you that you had been transported back in time to the '70s.
The country rocker "Modern Day Cowboy" is a relatively new addition to the repertoire but you could tell how welcome it already is by the shrieks that accompanied the "New Jersey plates" line in the chorus. Metzger's singing is what makes this song, and I'm sure it will inspire mass singalongs as the RANA audience grows.
The next three songs were covers that exemplify how truly exceptional yet truly wacky RANA really is. No one else would conceive of having Money Mark's "Play Piano," the "Legend of Zelda" video game theme, and Ween's "What Deaner Was Talking About" in the repertoire all at once, never mind back-to-back-to-back.
For the eighth (!) song of the encore, the band caved in to insistent
requests (mostly coming from the Wetlands' staff) for the slam-bang glam rocker "Backstage Pass." It's been sort of a running joke with the Wetlands folks. They can't seem to get enough of this song and always request it. Often the band ignores them. Tonight would be a bit different. This was a remarkable version, mainly because the band hopped up and down during the instrumental break and almost the entire audience joined them.
Exhausted after playing what was essentially a third set, the band walked off the Wetlands stage, presumably forever. But Wetlands booking guy and major RANA booster Jake Szufnarowski would have none of it. He's always gotten a kick out of challenging the guys' manhood, so he told them to get their asses back out there.
We'll show him, the guys must have figured. So they played "Backstage Pass," their most testosterone-fueled song, again! They did the pogo-ing thing again, but the crowd couldn't match its previous effort, having expended so much energy on the last one. And on three hours' worth of dancing, too.
Powerful versions of "God," a song that combines their improv and rocking inclinations very well, and another Talking Heads cover, "Found A Job," followed, and then they left in a blaze of glory.
But it ain't over til it's over, and Szufnarowski said it wasn't over.
He demanded that Ryan come out to sing the country weeper "Sad Songs." Thornton crooned and Metzger twanged their way through the song and then left the stage. This time the houselights went up. But Szufnarowski remained on the stage, peering toward the dressing room. What did he want now? "Backstage Pass" for a third time? The backstage door opened and the look on their faces was priceless. It was that are-you-sure-I-can-go-on, world-weary, 12th-round-of-a-heavyweight-fight kind of look. Except for Thornton, who is a
machine. He used to play hockey and the conditioning obviously did him well. Actually, this play-til-you-drop-and-then-come-back-against-all-odds-for-more thing has been a rock and roll tradition since James Brown, and probably before.
Suitably, the band delved into "Carbombed Again," about a guy who's spent just a bit too much time in a bar. Hmmm... there must be some symbolism there. As one of the slower songs in their canon, I thought it was all they could muster. But just when they were up against the ropes, they landed a last-minute surprise knockout punch, launching into their unlikely cover of Michael Jackson's "PYT (Pretty Young
Thing)," another song endlessly requested by the Wetlands staff. To make a song from Thriller rock (other than "Beat It") is a tremendous achievement. To do it after being onstage for four hours is superhuman. It sounded just as fresh as if it were a first-set opener, and the crowd had a renewed burst of energy. So much energy, in fact, that several people hopped on the stage to shake their booty, and it was total chaos. Even Durant stopped playing for a while so he could join the dancers.
But there was one bit of unfinished business. Ever since the band stunned everyone by singing the "Backstage Pass" chorus at the end of the "PYT" jam on 9/2/00, the Wetlands crew had been hounding them to do that again. So, since there wouldn't be any more occasions for it at Wetlands, they did it here, and it was astoundingly seamless. There was no topping that, and the night was over, as was RANA's headlining career at Wetlands.
This was the kind of night that will go down in history. As RANA expands its audience, I would bet that this is the show from this era that newcomers would wish they had attended. It had everything you could want from a band: passion, intensity, brilliant improvisation, crazy antics, and the sense that they were having so much fun that they didn't want the night to end. It was a night that mattered, and reminded all of us why we love this kind of music -- and this band, and this club -- as much as we do. That, my friends, is what rock and roll is all about.
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