An opener’s task is not easy. To impress a crowd with unfamiliar material, trusting a crowd of strangers to open their ears your hard work—it seems like a formidable task. Therefore, it’s understandable when a night’s first set doesn’t catch fire. Last night found electronic/experimental trio RONiiA playing a pleasant but uninspiring set ahead of TV On The Radio (TVOTR) in First Avenue’s sold-out Mainroom.
Dark Dark Dark singer Nona Marie Invie joined Mark McGee (Father You See Queen, Marijuana Deathsquads) and Fletcher Barnhill (Joint Custody) to form RONiiA, a local band signed to Totally Gross National Product. Quartz-looking stones flickering with light helped the mood, constantly wobbling from the vibrations in the room. The music sometimes seemed like a vehicle for Invie’s voice, but vocals melted in other moments, and dark beats took over.
“Last Words”, from last year’s self-titled LP, sounded great live; Invie sang with grace. (This came as no surprise to those who heard her backing vocals on The National’s latest album, Trouble Will Find Me.) Invie stayed engaged throughout the show, bouncing in double-time as the music thumped in her ears. She shared the “weird dream” that traveling anxieties had produced before a Colorado TVOTR opening set. In the dream, she tried to navigate a “really stressful flea market” and found out, “This is Aspen!”
Though they had fun moments, RONiiA felt like the rattlesnake printed on Invie’s shirt: coiled but frozen in time. The music held tension but no release. Though strobe-like lights shocked the crowd out of a stupor during one drum-heavy song—and during other songs, I saw a few people closing their eyes, trying to lose themselves—the crowd didn’t connect with most of the set.
For a few minutes of expansive intro music, it seemed like TVOTR would keep it at RONiiA’s energy level—but then 2003’s “Young Liars” burst out of the intro fog, and everything changed. A blank-faced crowd started smiling, and by fourth song “Happy Idiot,” the front rows were enamored.
Kyp Malone, a guitarist and vocalist, praised RONiiA’s set early on. “They’re from your town. Give it up for them!”
The band played seven songs from newest album Seeds, which frontman Tunde Adebimpe has called “the best thing we’ve ever done.” The audience seemed to agree.
On “Trouble,” Adebimpe sounded like Peter Gabriel. Dave Sitek, guitarist/keyboardist/producer for TVOTR (and producer for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), looked perfectly at peace while cranking out dizzying guitar lines. Malone often waved to the crowd; a “Free Palestine” sticker covered a few square inches of his guitar.
Adebimpe’s longest monologue had him asking audience members, “Have you ever felt depressed?” “The darkness” persists, he said. But he taught the audience a trick: to look into a stranger’s eyes and, on the count of three, shout, “Light!” He repeated the mantra several times: “One, two, three, light! One, two, three, light!” After several minutes of jamming over “light,” some small darkness did feel vanquished.
The first encore song, “Ride” from newest album Seeds, seemed to open a void in the room, using legato guitar to scoop away at reality. Adebimpe’s vocals slipped sadly low in the mix, but the otherworldly mood became a silver lining.
My biggest takeaway? The last song of the encore. During the show, I’d debated leaving the front for the calmer, less crowded top floor. But I spotted “Purple Rain” at the end of the printed setlist, and I stayed right where I was. Blazing, the Prince cover was everything one could hope for—Invie from RONiiA came out at the end and leaned on Adebimpe, sharing his mic while they sang the classic “whoo hoo hoo hoo”s. The crowd cheered after every line, celebrating the perfect ending.
After the show, I asked multi-instrumentalist Jaleel Bunton why TVOTR had chosen to end with “Purple Rain.” For a second, he looked at me like I was crazy. “Yeah, yeah, it’s First Avenue,” I answered myself, laughing, and he smiled. The band had never covered Prince’s power ballad before, he said. But when it scorched during sound check, they couldn’t resist.
Editor’s note: Due to an editorial oversight in securing photo access, our photographer was only able to take photos of RONiiA, not TVOTR. Here’s some nice Instagram evidence of Nona Marie Invie joining the band for “Purple Rain,” though.
Writer Cecilia Johnson is studying English and Spanish at Hamline University. Her favorite things include fire escapes, Minnesota summers, and Elliot Moss. Photographer Bridget Bennett is a student at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.