Entering the Knitting Factory lounge on Hollywood Boulevard, you might assume you took a wrong turn somewhere. The venue manages to squeeze in a bar, sound booth and stage with standing room spread in between — the perfect venue for up-and-coming NYC band Lola Ray, as by 7:00 P.M. the place was already full. The four male band members — easily confused with the torn shirt, rolled up jeans, fancy hat-wearing audience members — ran on stage. What began as a guitar-strumming warmup then kicked into “I Will Make You Mine.” Travis Chance was a welcome addition to the band, filling in for a few shows before they found their permanent drummer Brian Beck. Chance’s bass drum thumps caused lead singer John Balicanta to move. His pop-lock dances easily held the crowd’s attention, as did his quips between songs. To wit: “We’re very happy to play the Sadie Hawkins Dance. We never got invited when we were younger.”
Every Lola Ray song was at full force. They played a few tunes from their debut album Don’t Know You, like “What It Feels Like” and the popular “She’s a Tiger,” the latter including hand puppets by Balicanta. Fellow guitarists Brian Spina and James McIvor were less engaging, swaying to the rhythms but keeping the majority of their focus on playing. The talent of Lola Ray really had a chance to shine when Balicanta ran into some technical problems with his guitar.
After new song “Great Divide,” the band continued to play softly instead of completely cutting off as they usually did. Drums set the pace of the jam session for Spina and McIvor to join while Balicanta ran offstage. For a few minutes the guys remaining played off each other as if they were writing a new song at that moment. Balicanta re-tuning his guitar on stage was the only detail that suggested this might be more than a transition to the next song.
They wasted no time jumping into “We’re Not Having Any Fun,” almost making you sad the instrumental rock-out had to end. Some would call it lucky that after two more songs Balicanta’s guitar string broke and he had to leave the stage once more. The boys had his back again, and soon enough Balicanta returned to entertain the audience with his brand new song about sucky guitar strings. Moments like these were just another sign that Lola Ray could rise to any occasion.
The songs from their new album Liars were like listening to one hit after another. From the earnest “Beautiful Boy” to the reflective “Officer and a Gentleman” they rolled out anthems with such energy behind them, the band was in a sweat and the crowd couldn’t help but dance. The music alone was captivating, but Balicanta managed to add another layer to the sound with his intelligent lyrics. In “The Way We Argue” he sang, “I will never leave your side my friend / ‘Cause I am real / I’m not pretend / don’t listen to those fools.” His screeching emotions matched every bit of intensity the band could muster, making for an explosive show in a tiny lounge in Los Angeles.