Just over two years ago, Spotify introduced a fun new feature that curates 30 songs each week based on an individual user’s recent listening patterns. I was skeptical at first and still, for the most part, am. But in June of 2015, when a little song called “Fail!” appeared at the top of my “Discover Weekly” playlist, everything changed.
The overpowering bassline that opens the song was my first introduction to Rainbow Kitten Surprise, the North Carolina-based folk-inflected five-piece, and a fitting one at that. After hearing the song, I immediately listened to Seven + Mary, RKS’s 2013 double-EP on which “Fail!” is the first track. The double-EP — which functions more like a debut record — is loaded with infectious indie pop, arguably the best of its genre. If that sounds like an overstatement, just listen to the album.
Hooked within hours, I searched for the band and found their website. Much to my dismay, they hadn’t toured outside of North Carolina, nor did they seem to have plans to. So I bided my time, telling as many people about Rainbow Kitten Surprise as I possibly could, always feeling more than a little silly seriously recommending a band with such an absurd name. What I noticed, though, is that whenever somebody would actually listen, they would invariably profess their newfound love for RKS the next time we met.
Fast-forward a year-and-a-half, RKS has released an Audiotree Live set and are announced as part of Ann Arbor’s annual Folk Festival. I buy a ticket immediately, and enjoy the show from the balcony, longing for an open floor to dance on as vocalist Sam Melo dizzies the audience with his twirls and bobs and unabashed enthusiasm. Their set is good, but they’ve only been allotted 30 minutes.
Although the band hasn’t released any new material since 2015’s RKS, the recent growth in their fan base has allowed for more extensive touring outside of their hometown of Boone. Finally, on Tuesday, June 13th, wrapping up their first tour outside of a few southeastern states, RKS played an open-floor set at The Magic Bag in Ferndale. Though the space on the stage was a little small for Melo’s over-the-top antics — think twirling, shouting, jumping — the band delivered a set that was perfectly energetic, true to the goal that their studio work seems to lay out. (Although, much to my dismay, they didn’t play “Fail!”).
After having nearly been denied entry — the doorman had a difficult time believing that a college student could have a press pass — I was determined to point out every flaw in the venue, to wallow around in my own saltiness. When the band launched into “All That and More (Sailboat),” though, all attempts were futile. RKS’s relatively minimalist melodies and chilling harmonies dominated the space. They follow that with “Bare Bones” and “Cocaine Jesus,” a nostalgic drawn out question to an old lover: “Do you still think of me sometimes?”
For the relatively somber subject matter of most of the band’s songs, they do a surprisingly good job of keeping the mood light and fun for all. The forlorn and sometimes-helpless lyrics of songs like “First Class” and “All Is Well That Ends” are present and audible, but it’s the literal sonic turn of Melo’s voice — along with those of guitarist-vocalist Darrick Keller and bassist-vocalist Charlie Holt — that captivates.
The first half continues like this, with a fairly even mix of material from Seven + Mary and RKS, but about 45 minutes into the show they play a new song. It’s interesting and percussive, almost a chant. Up to that point, the only banter between songs was after “American Shoes” when Holt announced that they “like to dance.” The comment had come off as a little performative, but as the show went on, the guys seemed to get more comfortable.
Two or three songs later, they play their “Spotify Viral Hit,” “Devil Like Me,” but after the song proper, Melo hurdles into a vicious spoken word slam poetry-style piece about “the devil.” It comes out of nowhere, a refreshing reminder that RKS are both perfectly predictable and anything but. Following this animated sermon of sorts, the band play another new one which they let us know has been dubbed “Freefall.” Then, after announcing that life is about having fun: a rousing rendition of “That’s My Shit.” The band exits.
Approximately one minute later, after a persistent “we want an encore” chant by the audience — “No really I’ve never heard that before. What’s that chant?” Melo asks — RKS walk back onstage to rightful applause. After introducing the band members by name, Melo tears off his shirt, shouts “Turn the fuck up!” and the band plays a one-song encore — “Run” — in the oddest conclusion of a show I’ve ever witnessed. Afterwards, the five of them take a collective bow at the front of the stage, and let everybody know that they’d love to chat after the show.