Halfway through the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. show last Monday night, a giant disco ball exploded and gave birth to a pixelated toddler who sang along with the band in front of a sold-out Doug Fir crowd. No, mom. I wasn’t on drugs. It’s 2014 and things like this can happen in real life. It was awesome. Let me explain...
In a retro-obsessed culture that celebrates all things vintage and promotes weird behavior like 20-somethings growing lumberjack beards and buying old-school typewriters, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is a breath of fresh air—unapologetically embracing the reality that it's 2014 and there’s a whole palette of crazy new tools for a rock group to play with.
No one would have knocked these guys if they’d wheeled out vintage trunks full of old instruments on the Doug Fir's cabin-esque stage and played an acoustic set. As their relatively stripped-down 2011 debut, It’s A Corporate World, proved, DEJJ are more than capable musicians who don’t need to rely on fancy electronic tools to hide inadequacies. Fortunately for us, they’re also willing to experiment with these tools to create things that have never been done before (or even thought of) in the context of a rock show.
If my parents were beamed from the ‘70s to a present-day acoustic show, they would undoubtedly enjoy themselves but wouldn’t notice much out of the ordinary. If they ended up at a Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. show, they’d probably have a panic attack and wonder what was slipped into their drink.
Between a giant morphing projection ball and pitch-shifting vocoders that transform live vocals into unrecognizable galactic sounds, they wouldn’t know where the hell they were. Then, they’d start dancing because that’s what you do when you’re at a Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. show.
After Chad Valley opened the night with his hypnotizing blend of atmospheric electronics and soulful vocals, DEJJ took the stage to a flurry of bizarre electronic robot sounds rather than intro music. Frontmen Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott took their places behind their synthesizers at the front of the stage as drummer Mike Higgins and keyboardist Jon Visger launched into a lively version of "Hiding."
After spending two songs singing into a secondary microphone (that was actually a beat-up plastic telephone receiver taped to a mic stand), Epstein told the crowd that he had just gotten steroid injections the day before in Los Angeles to repair his ravaged vocal chords. Naturally, he followed this announcement by leading the band in a somewhat subdued (by their standards) cover of The Faces’ classic “Ooh La La” before jumping around the stage and screaming throughout the majority of the next three songs. So, I guess the steroids worked.
From the moment the doors opened, a surprising amount of energy buzzed throughout the Doug Fir. Epstein picked up on this and remarked, "I can't believe it's Monday. It feels like a Saturday. Next time, we'll come back on a weekend and who knows what the fuck will happen."
Obviously pleased with the warm reception of the crowd, he continued to say, "Portland feels a little like the Detroit of the Northwest," before realizing his hometown isn't exactly the first thing a city wants to be compared to. Over a few groans he added, "Uh oh. I think some of you took that the wrong way," and explained that he was referring to the youthful, DIY-attitude he'd experienced in both cities.
Apparently everything on stage with them, including several large light bulbed “JR” signs and the aforementioned giant disco projection ball, was made by a small group of similarly DIY-minded friends in Detroit. Playing an important part in the overall sensory overload of the show without distracting too much from the music itself, the pieces served the band’s purposes very nicely.
By the end of the night, as Zott and his wild, curly mop of hair jumped down from the stage to dance in the crowded audience during a three-song encore, it became clear that these guys are ready to make the next step in an already surprisingly successful career. After humble beginnings and with no grand ambitions to reach much farther than their basement recording studio, they’ve morphed into one of today’s best examples of a band fully in sync and comfortable with modern trends—without becoming completely bland and forgettable because of them. At the least, they can make a dreary Monday feel like Saturday.
Photos by Josh Phillips—check out a full gallery of the show.