If you haven’t seen Rasputina in twenty years – and that’s possible, since they’ve been around that long, in one incarnation or another – you should see them now. Early last week, in the parking lot out back of City Winery, the original cello rock band put on a boisterously entertaining show, defying the threat of early evening rain and revealing that frontwoman Melora Creager doesn’t have to wait to go outside until after the sun has set. This version of the band is a trio, no longer all-female, with a woman playing impeccably nuanced drums with her brushes and a guy on cello made up in drag so ridiculous that even he was laughing. And he turned out to be a great player, too, at one point ambushing his bandmates with a ferocious pickslide down the scale.
Notwithstanding the subtlety of the drums, this might be the hardest-rocking version of the band, an impression possibly underscored by the trebly, gritty sound of the two cellos blasting through distortion and reverb pedals. The set was a mix of familiar favorites and new material, including a “world premiere” where Creager coyly told the audience that she was using them as a focus group to see whether the agilely shapeshifting, distantly Velvets-tinged song would stand up to scrutiny. It did.
They opened with the catchy, distantly Bollywood-inflected Thimble Island. Creager switched to banjo on a couple of songs, including the harrowing Snow Hen of Austerlitz, a cruelly deadpan account of a feral child. “Leave the cage door open, we’ll see how far she gets,” Creager intoned bloodlessly. Inhumanity to the Indians was addressed on a similarly nonchalant mini-epic early on. A little later, Creager sent a shout out to forgotten female classical composers, and then led the band into a wildly applauded romp through Heart’s Barracuda.
Most of the recent material alternated between a slow gallop and a stately 6/8 sway. The big crowd-pleasers included a subdued and rather seductive take of Secret Message, a lingering Sweet Sister Temperance with its long, hypnotic, harmonically lustrous layers of vocals, and finally driving takes of the metal-tinged Rats, the acidic Saline the Salt Lake Queen and the amusingly surreal Mama Was an Opium Smoker. They wound up the set in just under an hour with an unexpectedly high-voltage take of Watch TV, much louder than the opiated chamber-pop version on the band’s first album. It would have been nice if Creager’s endless torrents of lyrics had been more audible: she’s just as clever a wordsmith as a tunesmith.