My summer feels (mostly) complete after catching Japandroids at the Newport Wednesday. If there was one band I was most stoked to see over these hazy humid days, it was this group. Still, my expectations were (mostly) low. I should have known better.
Leading up to the show, there were a few things I thought I knew well about Japandroids. Like, for instance, I knew the band’s been touring extensively over the last several years. I knew the two members were either approaching their thirties or just in to them. I knew that 2009’s debut Post-Nothing almost never was, and that its success and subsequent tour sparked something in them that carried over to sophomore showing Celebration Rock, which contains a hard-won “carpe diem”/“yawp” sensibility. If this is it, Celebration Rock seemed to declare, we’ll go down playing the best songs we’ve ever written with a fire we gathered from years of playing and never breaking through to success.
Which, in hindsight, should have been cause for high expectations. Few things inspire greatness like hunger and ambition and a clock that’s running out.
And yet. And yet, I found myself leery mostly because this is a two-piece rock outfit that relies (often) on reverb vocals and a (by design) looseness and messiness to its playing that doesn’t always translate live.
And yet, I spent most of Japandroids show with a permanent smile plastered on my face and afterwards walked away exhilarated. (I was not alone, as my friends attest, but my colleague Brad Keefe didn’t agree, deeming the group Japanduds or something similar, and leaving the show early from boredom.)
Here are a few reasons why I, at least, loved the performance:
1. Minimalism can be an easy crutch to rest on and can often (rightly) be interpreted as a cover for lack of originality. But in this instance I thought the band’s minimalist aesthetic contributed to its ideas, giving the songs room to flourish and inviting audience participation. For starters, Japandroids dressed in simple black and white T-shirts and jeans, which might recall another two-piece rock outfit (The White Stripes), but to me it lacked the arty pretension Jack and Meg White often carried with their monochromatic look. It also reflected, to my eyes, the duo’s everyman stature, which also cemented by nominal stage banter like “I know it’s a school, but we’re going to play a bunch of our songs.” Combined with the light show, which was likewise suitably minimalistic and often cloaked guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse in dramatic shadows, the message seemed to be: The only thing you should be paying attention is the music and having the time of your life.
2. The music was also pretty barebones, which is obviously the case when you’re watching a guitar-drum combo. It can be easy to become disengaged, particularly if you don’t know the songs well, but Japandroids’ stripped-down approach seemed to invite audience participation, drawing you in to each skuzzy note and propulsive drumbeat. A review for Celebration Rock by indie music site Pitchfork noted that King and Prowse often found themselves screaming the lyrics in the recording studio as if they were the audience at one of their shows. And it shows in their live performance. The duo’s songs have space, or in critic vocabulary, room to breathe. Live, this means songs sometimes started slow with steady drum beats, prompting audience clap-alongs (I overheard one person say: “This is great stomping music.”). Or the music would cut out completely, leaving room for shout-alongs to simple choruses (“Let’s go to France, so we can French kiss some French girls!”) and plenty of “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhh!” This minimalist approach also helped create tension, driving the highs in to the heavens.
3. For all my concern about sloppiness, Japandroids were especially tight as a combo, which I should have guessed knowing they’ve played hundreds of shows over the last few years. Songs were short, but constricted with energy, fading out after a few minutes and transitioning smoothly in to another jam. Sometimes these transitions were fun throwaways, too, like when Japandroids played the intro to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” or what I think was the James Bond theme (it was either that or “Mission: Impossible”).
4. A small note, but any band that shouts-out Cloud Nothings immediately earns goodwill on my behalf.
5. In all, if there was one word I’d use to describe the show it would be iconic. Walking out of the Newport, mingling with friends outside in the warm summer night air, I knew this show would linger with me, like the smell of salt water in a lover’s “Wet Hair,” the crackle of fireworks from album opener “The Nights of Wine and Roses.” The night was over, but I wanted to live, permanently, in “The House that Heaven Built.”