It's going to take a lot in future years to top Record Store Day 2012, especially in the Detroit area. For me personally, I got the two exclusive releases I really wanted thanks to UHF Records in Royal Oak who did a fantastic job of managing a huge crowd when their store opened at 10AM. And after a day of browsing and digging through bins at Detroit Threads in Hamtramck and Dearborn Music, I had an incredible bill of Detroit music to look forward to at the Majestic Theatre downtown.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. returned home for their first local show since September of last year at Arts, Beats & Eats after touring the country, making their first national television appearance on Conan and watching their popularity continue to rise. They've taken that step from 'local band' to national act who just happens to be from Detroit, and as I've said before, it couldn't happen to more deserving musicians from this area than Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott. Making this show even more special, perhaps legendary, was the inclusion of The Hard Lessons, another of this area's best bands, and the wonderful Phantasmagoria, rising stars on the local scene.
Phantasmagoria started the night off just after 9PM with a set of their alluring electronic based pop. With Christopher Jarvis responsible for the beats and musical backdrop, Lianna Vanicelli makes it easy to get lost in her dreamy vocals, as well as her percussion work. The duo mix various electronic styles into their music, a wholly original experience and fantastic way to kick off the evening. This was my first time seeing Phantasmagoria and I look forward to seeing them again as they lead up to their soon to be released first full length album.
This was far from my first time seeing The Hard Lessons, they've been responsible for a few of my all-time favorite Detroit live shows, but it had been awhile since we've seen Augie and Korin Visocchi. The couple took some time off to have their first child but are now back at it, rocking as hard as ever onstage. It had been over two years since my last Hard Lessons show so having them on the same bill with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. was a dream line-up. The two bands played together in New York earlier this year, so when this show was first announced my hope was for a hometown repeat and it was delivered.
The Hard Lessons played for around an hour opening with "See You Again" from 2009's "Arms Forest", (and also used recently in Chevy commercials featuring Detroit music), and weaving their way though a set heavy with old favorites and other "Arms Forest" tracks like the title track and "Sound The Silent Alarm". Also played was their new single "My Kind" which featured them working in "Up On Cripple Creek" in tribute to the late Levon Helm. Along with drummer Ryan Vandeberghe, this is still simply one of the best live bands in Detroit. Much like the night's headliners, no matter how far they travel across the U.S. and worldwide, The Hard Lessons are Detroit through and through, and hometown shows are always something special. Their set closed with a touching performance of "I Can't Sleep", a song they mentioned has new meaning now that there is a young child in the house.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. took the stage shortly after 11 and by this point, the Majestic was packed and the crowd ready to party. And that is exactly what DEJJ delivered, one giant celebration of being home, Record Store Day and Detroit music. This show also marked the end of the constant tour Epstein and Zott, along with drummer Mike Higgins, have been on behind their Warner Bros. debut album "It's A Corporate World". The band is taking a break from the road to work on their second album, expected to be released some time in 2013. They definitely left it all on the stage this night, the energy and exuberance of their typical live show taken to another level.
Their set opened as it usually does, with album opener "Morning Thought". Still my favorite DEJJ song, "An Ugly Person On A Movie Screen" was next with the audience loudly singing along to the eternally catchy 'na na na na' chorus, before going into "When I Open My Eyes", one of a number of songs of theirs that actually improves upon the studio version when played live. Epstein then dedicated their cover of "God Only Knows" to Detroit, stating it would be the last time they'd perform the song for awhile.
Epstein literally took the show into the audience during "It's A Corporate World", jumping down into the crowd to sing the title track while dancing and singing with audience members. At this point a horn section also joined the band for a few numbers. "Skeletons" gave the crowd another chance for a sing-a-long before things slowed down a bit for "If It Wasn't You..." which segued into a stunning cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye". This is the first time I'd seen DEJJ perform this and it left me wishing they'd release their version. I'll be searching for a high quality recording of this performed live as the two songs worked great together. Another treat followed with a rare live performance of "The Fisherman", the only song off "It's A Corporate World" that they hardly ever play in concert.
The only new song of the night was up next, "Don't Tell Me" which hopefully will wind up on the second album. The main set came to a close with "Simple Girl", "Vocal Chords" and "We Almost Lost Detroit" which brought the house down. With the crowd collectively waving arms and singing along, it was an incredible sight to see, this Gil Scott-Heron cover has become a bit of an anthem locally. Detroit rapper Marquise Porter, who released his own version of "We Almost Lost Detroit" a few years back sampling from the original, joined the band onstage as well to add a verse.
The encore kicked off with their version of "I Think Of You" by Sixto Rodriguez, which was just officially released earlier in the day on their Record Store Day exclusive "We Almost Lost Detroit" EP. A surprise cover was next as Epstein moved to the bass and Zott to the keyboards for a raucous version of Eddie Murphy's Rick James penned classic "Party All The Time". This had the place in a downright frenzy, yes there was crowd surfing, yes there were girls climbing on guys' shoulders and yes, everyone was singing and dancing their asses off. "Nothing But Our Love", their signature closer was next and the party in the crowd continued but no one wanted it to end there and it happily did not.
After leaving the stage again, the boys from Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. made one last trip back onstage, this time decked out in glow in the dark, checkered jackets, much like their EP covers. Epstein announced, "If you haven't danced yet, you'd better fucking do it now" as the band closed an incredible night with their cover of the late Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)". Two female fans even made their way up to and on the stage at the conclusion of the song, it was that kind of night.
The great thing about a night like this is that it was all local bands, one that has just so happened to break out nationally in a big way. I go to a lot of local shows, in lots of tiny venues and see amazing bands and musicians play in front of a handful of people at best. It can get frustrating and depressing at times, and I know Epstein and Zott have experienced it as I have been there to see it. It does my heart good to see this type of crowd reaction to Detroit musicians. A packed house, everyone singing, dancing, smiling and partying their asses off to the music. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. give them a show worthy of that reaction EVERY time. From the light up "JR" boxes to the bubble machines and confetti flying everywhere, Epstein and Zott know how to put forth a spectacle, but none of it would mean anything if they didn't have the songs and stage presence to back it up. These guys put on a SHOW. The energy and musicianship they put out every time I have seen them was only matched on this night by the beaming smiles on their faces at the love their hometown sent back their way. Truly a show I will never forget. Can we make this a yearly Record Store Day tradition guys?