Rainbow Kitten Surprise is a winner on more than one front. Locally, the band outta’ Boone, North Carolina, wins points for providing the strangest and most sparkly band name on the current Santa Barbara Bowl season marquee. Musically and self-expressively, last Friday night, the band won over a Bowl-ful of ardent fans and newcomers (present company included) with its savory, fresh, and retro mélange of pop, funk, and left-of-center folk. The hooks keep coming, even if from some peculiar angles.
On other fronts, the band carves out its own distinctive path, with liberal Biblical references in its song-ography and alternative gender-based realities. Its unpretentiously compelling lead singer, Ela Melo, officially came out as transgender on March 30, just before launching the current tour, of which the Bowl show was the tail end. While the sexual openness of the band might make minor news cycles in the still fairly hetero-geared rock world, the music speaks for itself and to all comers, in various stylistic languages.
The band, formed by Melo and guitarist-vocalist Darrick “Bozzy” Keller in 2013, when both were at Appalachian State University, has three official albums to its credit — Seven + Mary, RKS, and How to: Friend, Love, Freefall — from which the Bowl set list was drawn. The latter album dropped in 2018, whetting the appetite for new stuff. In April, the band teased said appetite with the new single “Work Out,” dropped toward the end of the Bowl show. Earnest rippling acoustic guitar opens the song, easing into thumping synth bass and the kind of inventive use of drum parts and select silences (by the excellent drummer Jess Haney) heard all night.
At the Bowl, they dipped into a country lope for “Goodnight, Chicago” and retooled gospel on “Cocaine Jesus,” turning the spiritual idiom a bluesier shade on “Devil Like Me.” The Christian references, flung with both sincerity and irony, bring to mind the Kings of Leon — run by sons-of-a-preacher — whose sound RKS can sometimes cozy up to as an influence.
The last of three encores, “It’s Called: Freefall,” lived up to its lyrical theme of seeking and cherishing liberation. Call it a running motif in the gospel according to RKS.