Live Review: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Bring Carnival Atmosphere to Detroit (November 23rd, 2013)

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For their biggest headlining show to date, a homecoming one no less, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. met with some venue-specific adversity that, for many bands, would have derailed the event. Yet, despite erratic lighting and obtrusive seating, the hometown heroes were undismayed, striving on and seemingly invigorated by the challenges to ensure their audience wasn’t disappointed. In a sense, it was the most appropriate way for the group to return to the beleaguered Motor City: being beset by technical glitches but rolling with the punches with a sense of humor — and coming out stronger for it.

Before the main act took the stage at the opulent Jack White Theatre in the Masonic Temple, fellow Detroit-ers Flint Eastwood warmed up the crowd with an eight-song set (first opener, Violets, I regrettably missed). Guitarist Bryan Pope, drummer Mark Hartman, and bassist Clay Carnill appeared first, clad in black suits and bolo ties, before singer Jax Anderson lurched her way across the stage like a gutshot gunslinger, playing up the band’s spaghetti western motif. Getting to the mic stand from which a bleached deer skull hung, Anderson kicked off “Can You Feel Me Now?” with a finger-pistol shot at the audience. During their performance, it became increasingly baffling as to why a seated theatre was drafted as venue for bands whose music innately compels people to dance. Simply put, seats are to water what Eastwood and Jr. Jr. are to oil. Far too many people remained plopped down, though Anderson in her frenzied, demanding persona persistently called out those unwilling to take to their feet. That said, the venue’s acoustics made the band’s bombast and searing vocals sound great.

During Eastwood’s third number, “Rewind,” a darkness descended, blacking out the band from view. While this seemed intentional at first, it was quickly revealed to be a mishap, as from then on, it seemed as if the light guy was unsure if he wanted all of the lights on or none of them. The situation didn’t seem to affect Eastwood, though, as they delivered a particularly rousing version of “Secretary,” during which Hartman stood to crash down on his battle-damaged cymbals, and Anderson led the audience in a volume-varying chant-along. Before wrapping their set, they announced each seat had a ticket taped to its underside, allowing attendees to download their debut EP, Late Nights in Bolo Ties.

After Eastwood, a fluttering of bubbles drifted down on the crowd and two pairs of stylized J’s and R’s at the forefront and rear of the stage blazed to herald the beginning of Jr. Jr.’s set. Well, actually, one the J’s wasn’t functioning, but the band took a “well, fuck it” approach and, after an extended instrumental build up, launched into “Hiding” from new LP The Speed of Things. Maybe it was the grandiose theatre, the energy of the crowd, the band’s enthusiasm to be home or a combination thereof, but the song sounded so damn large. When it ended, the band bantered with the crowd a bit, an occurrence that would repeat after almost every cut. “We’re playing in the dark a little bit up here, but goddamn it’s good to be home,” Joshua Epstein said as the audience cheered. Later, in trying to spur the audience to dance, he joked that “the seats are throwing us off.”

From there, Jr. Jr. ran through a setlist composed almost evenly of tracks from both of their LPs. Let me be frank: Jr. Jr.’s two studio records left me a bit underwhelmed. With a few exceptions on each, the melodies didn’t linger and the energy felt too tempered. Live, they’re a different beast entirely. “Simple Girl” was remarkably heavy toward the end, and with the broken-hearted whimsy of “Don’t Tell Me,” Epstein ran around the stage banging on a snare drum, noodling with a synth and jumping onto the floor while Daniel Zott whirled his vertical ponytail and bounced like a pogo stick. “Skeletons” ended with a blistering guitar frenzy, and the saxophone outro of “War Zone” added another level of dynamism. Perhaps most impressive was the musical chairs approach the band had toward their instruments, swapping them back and forth throughout the set.

When the technology was cooperating, the giant white orb behind the band swirled with various images. In “Run,” an animated cartoon face with color-changing dimples appeared on the globe, while with “Mesopotamia,” the ball bore Nintendo-style graphics of the Genesis account’s fall of man (On the downside, the song grew shrill in its concluding salvo). The audience responded with its own quirkiness, several attendees hoisting cut-outs of Epstein and Zott’s faces on pickets and tossing either condoms or candy on stage. A loose, almost carnival mood pervaded the event, akin to a low-key Flaming Lips concert.

Late in the set, the band paused to take photos of the crowd and state their thankfulness. “We’re so overwhelmed with gratitude,” Epstein said. “This is actually the biggest show we’ve ever played.” They proceeded to end the main set with the rousing “Almost Lost Detroit” and “If You Didn’t See Me (You Weren’t on the Dancefloor).” Placed back to back, the songs were the true highlight of the night, Zott on the former jumping down from the stage, letting his curly mop of hair down and leading the audience in belting out the Gil Scott-Heron ode to Detroit. After a brief break, the band returned for a three-song encore. A stark “A Haunting” kind of killed the powerful momentum of its two predecessors, but a cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” made up for it, especially as Epstein announced they had brought the tune out of retirement and were dedicating it to those in attendance. “Nothing But Our Love” then properly closed the set with an extended outro of instrumental pandemonium, the bubbles returning to bring a feeling of the show having come full circle.

Now, as mentioned above, I wasn’t too hooked on Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s albums going into the show. Going out, I’d attained a whole new perspective on the group. They are one that needs to be experienced live to get the full range of what they offer, and their performance implored me to revisit their records to see if my newfound appreciation carries over to them. What more can you seek from a show than to leave with that sensation?

Flint Eastwood setlist

1. Can You Feel Me Now?
2. The River
3. Rewind
4. Shotgun
5. Secretary
6. Can You Save Me?
7. Angels
8. Billy the Kid

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. setlist

1. Hiding
2. Simple Girl
3. Vocal Chords
4. Don’t Tell Me
5. Ooh La La (the Faces cover) / Morning Thought
6. Run
7. Mesopotamia
8. War Zone
9. Skeletons
10. We Almost Lost Detroit (Gil Scott-Heron cover)
11. If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t on the Dancefloor)

ENCORE

12. A Haunting
13. God Only Knows (Beach Boys cover)
14. Nothing But Our Love

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