After a tour that has taken them around the country, Detroit's own rising stars Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. returned home Saturday night to celebrate the release of their debut album "It's A Corporate World" at St. Andrew's Hall. The place was packed with family, friends, fans and other local musicians and could not have been a more successful, or incredibly entertaining, night. It was not just a celebration of the duo's album and success, it was a celebration of this city and all the great music coming from here.
To help make that point, Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott included a few of their favorite artists to open the festivities and show the eclectic nature of the music scene here. Starting the night out was Prussia, another of my favorite local bands to see live. The quartet never fails to put on an electric set as they perform their wholly original take on pop, rock, soul and whatever other elements they feel like throwing into their musical mix. Lead singer Ryan Spencer is a spastic ball of energy onstage, flailing his arms wildly, beating his arm with a maraca, darting all over the stage while singing in his unique voice. Joined by his brother Drew on drums, Kasey Press on bass and guitarists Adam Pressley and Brenton Bober, you'd be hard pressed to find a tighter band live in Detroit. Their set was heavy on tracks from their, as yet unreleased, album "Poor English", which Epstein helped produce.
Detroit rapper Danny Brown was up next. I'll refrain from saying much more than I used to love rap and hip-hop growing up. The days of Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ice-T and so many more. This genre of music has simply passed me by, I don't see the difference between Brown's profane rapping and any other hip-hop act I've heard recently inviting a "bitch" to "suck my dick". Like I said, not a style of music I can get into anymore, so we'll leave it at that. I did appreciate the goal to mix disparate musical styles between the opening acts, however.
So that brings us to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. I've seen them perform twice before, at last year's DIY Festival in Ferndale, and at UHF Records for this year's Record Store Day. I almost feel like this was my first true DEJJ concert, for as much as I enjoyed those other two performances, this was on a whole other level. The duo, along with drummer David Vaughn, exhibited exactly why all the hype around them is justified with an electrifying, energy packed set. I've seen comments from Epstein that he wanted this to be the best show they've done so far. Well sir, it appears you got your wish.
Taking to the stage in their trademark NASCAR uniforms while giant light up letters "JR" were at the front and back of the stage, Epstein and Zott slowly unzipped their uniforms to reveal suits, their new uniform of choice behind the "It's A Corporate World" theme. I'm frankly glad to see this, I'm sure the duo does not want to be tagged as "those guys in the NASCAR outfits", and have already discussed moving on from them. They came to center stage to shake hands, then kicked into album opener, and first single, "Morning Thought".
Except for album closer "The Fisherman", the entire debut album was played, with a couple choice covers added to flesh out the set. "Simple Girl" was up next followed by "Vocal Chords" as a bubble machine blew bubbles over the crowd and balloons started to make their way over everyone as well. Let's face it, any band that utilizes things like this in a live show is going to get compared to the Flaming Lips, and this show often had that seem feeling of euphoria and joy you get at a Flips show. Combine that with some hometown pride in seeing two local musicians who are representing this city so well on a national stage, and it was impossible not to get caught up in the moment and enjoy the hell out of this night.
For the next two songs, "When I Open My Eyes" and "If It Wasn't You...", DEJJ took a couple of my lesser favorites from the album and did what only the best can do, improve upon them in a live setting. The addition of the live drums certainly plays a big role in this, but the duo often extended songs beyond their shortened studio versions to tremendous effect. For "If It Wasn't You...", they even tacked on some of Dolly Parton's classic "I Will Always Love You", with Epstein in the lead.
With a dedication to Detroit, they played their cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows", from their 2010 EP "Horse Power", before Epstein took center stage for lead vocals on the title track to the album. He even came out into the audience at one point to encourage singing along. It was then time to gather the Skeleton Choir to perform backing vocals on one of the album's standout tracks, "Skeletons". Joining DEJJ onstage were a group of people from the audience in skeleton masks (with a few pandas thrown in as Epstein explained some people in other cities had stolen some skeleton masks throughout their tour), as well as Detroit duo Phantasmagoria on percussion. Epstein again sang lead while Zott, also playing percussion, helped lead the Skeleton Choir on backing vocals.
My favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. song, "An Ugly Person On A Movie Screen" was next, with the extended ending I so wish was on the studio version, and the crowd dancing along to this infectious track. This just HAS to be a single at some point, I can already hear the remixes playing in my head. The duo then donned Detroit Tigers jackets, with the legendary Olde English D, for their cover of the Gil Scott-Heron gem "Almost Lost Detroit". This song also screams single, their hardest rocking track and a passionate vocal delivery by both Zott and Epstein. Local rapper SelfSays came out to perform a quick rhyme, which actually fit in brilliantly in the middle of the performance, then proceeded to shoot confetti guns into the audience, making for a colorful display.
That was it for the main set. The band left the stage to a deafening roar and loud chants of "Junior, Junior" started to rock the walls of St. Andrews. They returned, with Zott telling everyone it was time to dance as they went into a cover of Steve Winwood's "Higher Love" that has been drawing a lot of attention during their tour. Epstein even pulled out his saxophone to show his skills to the hometown throng.
The final song was the one that really started everything for the duo, "Nothing But Our Love" which was the first single and video from the "Horse Power" EP. For the finale tons of balloons were released from the rafters, the bubble machine was again on full blast and it was a dizzying, magnificent ending to a truly memorable show that should stay with those who were there for a long time.
As I've said before, I couldn't be happier for these two. It is rewarding as a fan of music, and the music being made in Detroit, when you see true talents reap the rewards of their art. It couldn't be more deserving, this show proved they have the goods live as well, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. just delivered one of the best shows I'll see all year.