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Cello Envy: Rasputina, April 9 at the Ottobar

April 26, 2010

There’s a certain amount of novelty and gimmickry in the music of the long-running cello rock ensemble Rasputina. And when you see the band live, it’s clear that its fanbase relishes the old-timey trappings of Rasputina’s songs and image, because the place looks like a steampunk convention: corsets and top hats and everything. But the reason Rasputina shows are really fun and entertaining is because frontwoman Melora Creager punctures any possible goth self-seriousness at every turn. With bizarre anecdotes, purposefully confusing song introductions, and a loopy sense of humor, she makes clear that she’s simply a woman who watches the History Channel and uses it for inspiration to think up some pretty weird songs.

This month’s brief tour that brought Rasputina to Baltimore marked Creager’s first return to performing since having a baby in November, and served as a preview of songs from new album Sister Kinderhook, due out in June. But it also provided a unique selection of covers and songs from the band’s past. On the unseasonably cool spring night, the band opened the show with a pair of songs about foreboding weather: the fact-based “1816, The Year Without A Summer” from 2007’s Oh Perilous World and a cover of CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” that the band transformed into the eerie. Later in the set, Creager and the new newest members of the constantly rotating Rasputina lineup played some songs they’d recently re-learned from 1998’s How We Quit the Forest, and gave the brooding cello treatment to pop/rock classics “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones and “American Girl” by Tom Petty.

The opening band Prudence Teacup wasn’t quite as twee as the name would imply, which would be virtually impossible, and in some ways was well matched with the headliner. The quartet’s restrained, vaguely retro sound was of a piece with Rasputina, and the drummer’s spare set had a cavernously beautiful-sounding floor tom and kick drum that made the band’s slow grooves almost hypnotic. But once Rasputina took the stage and Creager’s goofy, affable stage presence electrified the room, it was clear that a little something beyond the music can mark the difference between an entertaining live band and a dull one.