“Do your best, but fuck the rest. Be something.”
Alynda Segarra delivered many core, poignant lines fronting her band Hurray For the Riff Raff at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge on Monday, but that may have been the core-est. It came in the song “Pa’lante,” the show’s epic closer and emotional climax — the same position it holds on the new album, “The Navigator.” And it pretty much sums up the essence of the album: a concept set tracing her journey as a 17-year-old leaving her Bronx home, train-hopping around the country before landing in New Orleans, and now at 30 retracing it in a prodigal journey to tie who she is now to where she came from.
The song’s title, she explained by way of introduction this night, is a colloquial exhortation to “move forward,” associated with the Young Lords, a Spanish Harlem-originated Puerto Rican gang-turned-quasi-militant cultural action group of the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. And in the course of the song, dramatically quoting from Nuyorican poet/activist Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” she calls out “Pa’lante!” to a vast cast: “To Juan, Miguel, Milagro, Manuel… To all who came before… To my mother and my father… To all who had to hide… To all who lost their pride… To all who have had to survive…” To all who have struggled to find their place in the world, who are struggling now. To all fighting to know and hold identity, whatever that means, whatever shape it takes. The riff raff. Hurray. “Be something.”
On the album it’s presented as if a theater piece, different characters, different voices. But as she stood on the Lodge’s vintage meeting-hall stage, pumping her arm in the air as she cried “Pa’lante!” with her bandmates building the song’s musical momentum, the person she was addressing most, it seemed, was the one making the cry — herself. As an artist she has taken it to heart.
||| Photos by Jessica Hanley
“The Navigator” and the concert (following a forcefully engaging set by SoCal locals Kera and the Lesbians, more on that later) both find Segarra and her Riff Raffers, after a decade of steady growth, now making huge strides. (The current edition is a sharp unit of guitarist Jordan Hyde, bassist Caitlin Gray, keyboardist Sarah Goldstone and drummer Charlie Ferguson.) These are even bigger leaps than those that brought the band from intriguing folk-rooted Americana to the grander sweep of music and themes of its last album, 2014’s “Small Town Heroes” and its breakthrough songs, “St. Roch Blues” lamenting New Orleans murder victims and “The Body Electric,” upending the sex/violence murder-ballad tradition. That latter song was still given a centerpiece slot in Monday’s show, but it was the new ones that made for a display both powerful and personal, Segarra on the verge of being a performer with strengths to match her ambitious messages, the kind of things that have gotten her slots on social commentary outlets lately, including appearances on “The Daily Show” and “Democracy Now,” as well as CBS’s “Sunday Morning.”
Now, the problem with most concept albums is that the concept is the concept is either too thin or too thick. And the problem with most road stories is that the road is too well-traveled.
But the thread here is loose enough to give flexibility, but strong enough to tie everything together. And the road taken by the Navigator (the title character) goes off the beaten track enough that the vistas are fresh.
In that role, Segarra seems part Millennial “Bound for Glory” Woody Guthrie and part Bertolt Brecht’s devilishly dreaming “Pirate Jenny,” by ways of Ulysses, Kerouac and, certainly, Patti Smith. And then there’s the music. There are still elements of the folkie beginnings — the country-esque loner ballad “Life to Save,” which opened the set. But overall there’s been an evolution toward a bigger, rock-er approach of a sort that, combined with the vivid character portraits, will get some lazy folks evoking the name Springsteen. That said, perky “Living in the City” did have some Brooooooce in it Wednesday, but also a lot of Looooooou, as in Reed, its Velvet-y rock pulse hard to mistake.
But in the course of the new songs, various musical tones were struck, illustratively and effectively. The dark, dense insistence of “Hungry Ghost” shaded the portrait of a misfit yearning to find a fit. The Puerto Rican rhythms and modes of “Rican Beach” (spiked by Hyde’s Latin-esque licks) enriched the enhanced the song’s account of a culture, a people defiant in the face of peril. The spare piano balladry of “Fourteen Floors” opened the door on Segarra’s most personal account, childhood memories of waiting for her father in her family’s apartment. And through it, Segarra’s expressive yet unaffected voice is both anchor and invitation. All told, 10 of the 13 new songs were played, each with a different sound, yet things never seemed disjointed or jumbled.
That said, the concert, clocking in at just an hour, lacked a little in terms of the narrative arc of the album, but that might come together as the band gets more miles behind them with the new songs. And reaching that peak of “Pa’lante” had the right dramatic touch — accented and rounded out with the following encore, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s trenchant “Fortunate Son,” much of the audience singing along.
And of course, a navigator doesn’t just guide her own journey. By definition she is charting routes others can follow. It’s a role she’s taken as a mission, and one she does exceedingly well, leading the way. Do your best. “Pa’lante!”
Kera Armendariz and her Lesbians (three dudes, as it were) are on the same mission, forward with a sense of history, both in terms of identity (her wish, she said on stage, was to “create a space for all of us to exist”) and music. The latter is a perfect balance of pop and art, of hurt and joy, of serious purpose and frisky playfulness. You really have to love anyone who puts a version of Roy Orbison’s “Cryin’” as the hub of the set, and the hub of her artistic scope, fueled and inspired by that song’s combination of aching, yearning heart and quasi-operatic drama. Hey, there was even a guest harpist on the opening and closing songs. It was a set that would have blown away a headliner of lesser merit than HFTRR. Others, take heed.
||| Live: Hurray for the Riff Raff returns to L.A. for a show at the Teragram Ballroom on June 9. Tickets.