The future of protest music looks bright with artists like Hurray for the Riff Raff carrying the torch. The band, fronted by singer/songwriter/guitarist Alynda Segarra, brought their socially conscious Americana to an enthusiastic, ostensibly “woke” crowd at The Sinclair in Cambridge for the first of a two-night stand on Tuesday, in the process maybe enticing some among them to return for the second. It was a special night.
Ron Gallo opened with a punchy set that might have equaled an intracardiac adrenaline shot in its effect on the crowd. Gallo sheepishly kicked things off stumbling through a prepared statement introducing himself and the band, quite convincingly playing the role of awkward kid at his first high school talent show, complete with stammers and mispronunciations. The snarky illusion vanished the moment the vicious music started, though, and the three-piece displayed a tightness, showmanship and (barely) controlled fury that belied their newcomer status. Touring behind their debut LP ‘Heavy Meta,’ Gallo’s humorous, self-aware lyrics and unpredictable stage antics, to the tune of the band’s impassioned, Stooges-esque garage rock, sustained a high throughout the compact set. On the one occasion that he slowed things down for the brooding ‘All the Punks Are Domesticated,’ anyone paying attention had to realize they were looking at one who wasn’t.
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Although the pairing of Gallo with the folk-inflected Riff Raff might seem incongruous on paper, when Segarra emerged in a militant black beret emblazoned with a peace sign pin, visually referencing counter-cultural political and social action organizations like the Black Panthers and Young Lords, any concerns were dispelled. If the music itself would be more subdued, the content would surely not be.
There is a readily apparent intensity to Segarra’s presence that compliments the severity of her words. She is rightfully direct and unapologetic when introducing songs like her gentle ode “to women and all that is feminine,” ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl,’ or the darkly funky tale of cultural theft and abuse of immigrants in America, ‘Rican Beach.’ Segarra is a descendant of Puerto Rican immigrants and proudly vocal about her heritage, lending songs like the latter a distinctive power and resonance. A shout out to her parents led to an especially emotive ‘Fourteen Floors,’ with Segarra gradually increasing the intensity on the refrain, “My father said it took a million years / Well he said that it felt like a million years,” before closing the story with, “Just to get here,” exposing in so few words the struggle immigrants of all stripes put in to reach America and continue to face after they make it.
The set was heavy on songs from HFTRR’s charged new concept album ‘The Navigator’ but plenty of favorites from ‘Small Town Heroes’ appeared as well. Segarra introduced ‘The Body Electric’ as a song for “anyone who’s naïve, who’s a dreamer,” which may seem a bit out of step with the song’s subversive commentary on depictions of violence against women in country and folk songs, but was still unquestionably effective! The elegiac ‘Good Time Blues (An Outlaw’s Lament)’ was another highlight, coaxing the room to a soothed and reverent quiet as Segarra spun her mournful desperado’s tale.
Time was naturally made in the weighty set for a few good time rockers as well. Segarra invited Gallo and the band out twice, the first time for a jubilant ‘Living in the City’ in which the boys offered some ragtag harmonies and hand percussion, and again for an encore of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son,’ a visceral, grooving take that the singer said was designed to leave the crowd “hyped up and ready to fight fascism.”
In predominantly liberal Cambridge, there was certainly an element of preaching to the choir throughout the set, but that was sort of the point. The band performed in front of a huge banner that read, “WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER,” in bold white text and, in spite of the potentially divisive content of many of their songs, the vibe was inclusive and consistently joyous. Even the set’s angrier numbers offered an expansive catharsis that all could share in. The emotional peak of the evening came at the end of ‘Pa’lante,’ a rallying cry for the Young Lords that Segarra has modernized into a universal call for resistance and collective strength. Fists were raised for each impassioned shout she delivered at the song’s climax and the room was filled with the song’s righteous indignation and overpowering sense of hope. We are all in this together, and Hurray for the Riff Raff offers as empowering and consequential a soundtrack to “this” as you’re likely to find.