Rainbow Kitten Surprise Brings Intimate Theatrical Energy to Chicago Performance

Known for their folksy harmonies, infectious rhythms, and perfectly timed instrumentals, RKS is an unmissable show.


Sofia Hrycyszyn

The words of one of the other photographers in the pit rang in my head: “I’ve been to a ton of concerts, and Rainbow Kitten Surprise is the best I’ve ever seen.”

By Sofia Hrycyszyn, Arts Reporter

With the excited chatter of the crowd echoing around me, I looked up, spinning in a slow circle, hypnotized by the shimmering constellations on the ceiling of Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom. Heads bobbed in and out of view on the castle-like balconies bordering the second floor as people jostled their way to the front. In the press pit, I felt strangely isolated just paces from the crowd. Stuffing earplugs in, that physical distance became mental, too. The noise behind me blended as I focused on the rainbow line of lights on stage. The words of one of the other photographers in the pit rang in my head: “I’ve been to a ton of concerts, and Rainbow Kitten Surprise is the best I’ve ever seen.”

The five band members rushed out to a chorus of cheers. They assumed their positions and waited for a lull before guitarists Ethan Goodpaster and Darrick “Bozzy” Keller plucked the distinctive first few notes of “All That and More (Sailboat).” The guitarists paused for a beat before the rest of the band jumped in, strumming and singing. As with a lot of Rainbow Kitten Surprise (RKS) numbers, “All That and More” has calming vocals with an underlying rhythm that unconsciously gets the foot tapping. After the first verse the crowd’s foot-tapping transitioned to clapping, just as in studio recordings of the song. There was no instruction necessary.

Down in the pit with the musicians on a pedestal above me, it felt like the whole band was playing just for me. Knowing this was by far the best view I’d have all night standing at five foot one, I kept my eyes trained on the band: Ela Melo, lead vocalist, perched at her piano, with Goodpaster to her right drummer Jess Haney to her left. I joined the audience in nodding my head to “Black and White,” another gentle song whose folksy harmonizing alternated with lyrics so high in energy that they were almost shouted. The different tones present within the one song foreshadowed oscillations of energy to come.

For RKS’s third song, Melo abandoned the piano and stood center stage flanked by bassist Charlie Holt and guitarist Keller. “Our Song” was abruptly different from their previous tracks, being closer to indie-rock than folk and one of the band’s most aggressive pieces. The song uses artful pauses in drumming and vocals to build tension that culminates in a verse which describes a fight scene simultaneously playing out on stage between Holt, Keller, and Melo. The song reflects difficulties and tensions that come with deep friendships, and the chemistry of the band members showed that they love making music together so much that their unavoidable disputes are almost part of the fun. That energy is infectious, and as Melo spun, her skirt twirling around her, she spread that excitement out into the crowd.

While the name “Rainbow Kitten Surprise” apparently originated from a drug-induced haze by one of the band’s friends, everyone I told about this concert thought I was seeing something (i.e. screamo or heavy metal) which would be surprising when juxtaposed with images of rainbow kittens. Those friends were kind of right. RKS could be described as alternative indie, but that doesn’t encompass the layers and varieties in the band’s music. Every song is a little different, borrowing elements of folk, indie rock, hip-hop, and musical theater. “Mr. Redundant,” with its showtune-like bright piano chords, is probably the best example of musical theater’s influence on RKS’s style. But more important than the elements of theater-music are the theater-like personalities and performances of the artists.

Because the audience knew the lyrics, there was a dialogue between the crowd and the performers in which each fed off of the other. While that energy isn’t uncommon, I’ve never seen it executed better than it was by RKS. I’ve also never seen a stage fight quite like theirs. It’s the band’s pure energy and excitement, rolling off the stage and into the crowd, that creates an intimate experience between audience and artist. The first time you hear the recordings of some of RKS’s songs, they fall flat, but every minute live is intoxicating. Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s stage presence made their show.

Throughout the middle portion of the set, the band maintained their energy by sprinkling in a few of their best pieces, including “Lady Lie,” “All’s Well That Ends,” and “Mission to Mars.” They held on to their true gems, the ones everyone was eagerly waiting for, until the end of the night, when the band hit the audience with back-to-back favorites. The stage lights painted the band in red as the opening notes to “Devil Like Me” echoed across the ballroom. Melo’s crisp but slightly raspy vocals rang out, complementing the creepy undertones of the guitars and the lyrics. A twang was just audible with the pronunciations of certain words, hinting at the band’s North Carolina roots. The band transitioned into “It’s Called: Freefall,” their top-ranking song on Spotify and the namesake for their most recent album How to: Friend, Love, Freefall. The song and its performance embodied everything that RKS is: cryptic lyrics touching on friendship and personal devils, beautiful harmonies in which the voice of each individual entwines with the others, and a complex closing instrumental that all five poured themselves into.

For their final low-key song, “First Class,” Melo transitioned to an acoustic guitar which complemented the longing and pleading evident in the lyrics. Although the song is made more for belting than for jumping, everyone knew which words were supposed to be shouted and it served to prepare the audience for my personal favorite song, “Cocaine Jesus.” Artfully tying together the best aspects of all their work—the foot-tapping rhythm, the lyrical harmonies, and the perfectly timed instrumentals—“Cocaine Jesus” explores memories, love, and longing. RKS sucked in the audience with the urgency and intensity of the song’s performance, bringing the show to a climax that carried into their final song, “That’s My Shit.” This song isn’t among their most popular, but the repetition of the phrase “that’s my shit” was the perfect outlet for the energy in the room and truly showcased the confidence of the performers.

Even before the band had fully left the stage, the audience begged for just one more. They complied, taking just enough of a rest to ensure cries for an encore before stepping back on stage. Melo took a moment to thank the crowd and name each of her band members. They moved through “Run” before aptly finishing with “Goodnight Chicago.” Melo’s repeated pleas for Chicago to not “shut down on me now” were met with the overwhelming sense that it was truly the end of the night.