By: Colin Roose, Staff Writer
"Melodic folk-rock." That description could sound either intriguing or repulsive to you, but needless to say it carries some connotations. Three-chord acoustic strumming. Lyrics out of the Paul Simon handbook of singer-songwriter confessions. A rhythm section serving primarily to prop up the ego of the frontman.
Yet that was how Victor Rasgaitis, lead singer and guitarist for The Ridges defined his band's sound to an inquiring fan in line in front of me for their show with Deadwood Floats at Donkey Coffee. Despite the acclaim I had heard about the group, I must admit that my expectations were lowered upon hearing this description. I figured they would probably play okay-ish background music for chatting with friends over a latte, but not much more.
Well, if ever there were a case for the misleading homogeneity of genre labels, this was it. The Ridges' set was as far from coffee shop music banality as possible, showing the energy of stadium rock in the humble back room of the Donkey.
After about an hour past the scheduled start time of 8:00 due to sound difficulties, the Columbus-native Deadwood Floats were ready to play, mandolin and xylophone in tow.
The band stood out from the typical folk idiom with their uncommonly versatile musicians. Their drummer and accordion players switched roles occasionally, while singer Drew Williams alternated between ukulele and piano. Banjo and violin were also heard as the band showed off their charmingly eccentric original compositions. However, the highlight of their set was a cover of a song by Massachusetts band The Woodrow Wilsons, whose majestic guitar riff really made me wonder why its writers were so obscure.
By the time Deadwood had finished their set, the number of people in the room had reached fire hazard-like proportions, and the only standing room was in the back. It was so crowded, in fact, that Victor Rasgaitis came up to me and asked if he could remove my table in order to make more room for the audience before his band came on. That was the final indication that they were going to play more than tea-and-Scrabble fare.
The Ridges made an extravagant entrance into the show, standing among the crowd to perform their first song. It spoke volumes about the band to see that they did not need to be on stage behind amplifiers to make an impact, as Rasgaitis sang and played guitar while standing on top of a chair and percussionist Johnny Barton danced around with what appeared to be claves. The impact of a cello really hits hard when the strings are vibrating one foot in front of you.
When they finally did go up on stage, the fans all came near to the platform in some kind of folk mosh pit. Despite the pressure of the fans so close and the difficulty of fitting the six members in the small performing space, the group seemed undaunted and started directly into their next song. This was not a band to give meaningless introductions.
What followed was a whirlwind of pizzicato strings, whale-call imitations, and psychedelic-era backing vocals. With few breaks to even allow the crowd to clap, the band played through several numbers in succession, sounding almost like they were performing one grand 45-minute epic. Throughout the entire set, Rasgaitis moved around the stage, shouting and dancing like it was the last time he would ever perform, while cellist Talor Smith remained seated, bowing out the melodic lines with finesse.
However, The Ridges made it clear that they were a band to be listened to, not simply watched. The complexity of their music recalled the niceties of an orchestra rather than the folky indie band that they appeared to be. Barton more often provided subtle atmosphere with tambourine and cymbals than standard 4/4 timekeeping. The band included a trumpet, whose sound provided a wonderful brassy contrast with the guitar, violin and two cellos. The group took full use of the sonic capacities of their instruments, from gentle string interludes to bashing drums and fast strumming.
The best part of all, however, was their knack for bringing their compositions to life. Despite the overwhelming amount of energy and passion onstage, the members never tried to play over each other. Sometimes a solo cello or vocal part would appear, before eventually building up to a full band wall of sound. Everyone contributed for the sake of the song and the song alone.
The only real stage banter came when Rasgaitis announced before the last song that there would be a cheesy sing-along part at the end. The band's performance had stylistically veered toward a classical performance up to that point, albeit a very engaging one, but it began to feel like an arena show once the audience began to chant along. That small concession to the conventions of a normal rock concert was the perfect way for them to thank their audience and balance out their symphonic approach.
It was rather amusing to watch the reactions of the audience in front of me close to the stage. Some regarded the changing tempos and multi-sectioned songs with a blank stare, while others swayed back and forth, and still others tried to dance like it was club music. This kind of confusion indicates that The Ridges play what popular music is in dire need of right now - indescribable blends of sound whose creators follow their own musical instincts rather than being copycats to their favorite bands.
I don't blame Victor Rasgaitis for not quite knowing how to classify his band. After an hour of listening to their music, the best way I could boil down what I had heard was some kind of orchestral-folk-pop-jazz-rock. And if that's the sound of a band synthesizing diverse influences in such a natural way as The Ridges, more of that, please.