I’ve been a junkie of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. ever since I first caught that guitar riff on “Vocal Chords” a couple years ago while cleaning my kitchen. It’s a hell of a song. If you haven’t listened to its hometown album, It’s a Corporate World, you should make out to it. Seriously. Regardless of their love-heavy motifs, I’m arriving at Urban Lounge on the solo side of things. I high-five myself and do some catching-up with a familiar wall whom I haven’t seen in ages. “Is that a new poster?” I ask coyly.
As the crowd slowly moves in, Urban Lounge is holding a decent 40 people by the time Madi Diaz and her band approach the untidy stage. I can tell these patrons are mostly newbies or Provo-ites because only, like, five of them have drinks in their hands, and, for no apparent reason, there’s a 7-foot gap between them and the stage. Diaz doesn’t seem to mind as she picks up her electric guitar and greets the audience warmly.
Starting with a much less subdued version of “The Other Side,” Diaz hooks the audience with the slow, powerful beat of the song. Without many of the digital influences, like the sounds found in her recent album, Phantom, Diaz gives an almost bluesy element to her songs when using analogue instruments. I actually dig it. Even her more pop-sounding tunes like “Tomorrow” sound aggressive as she strums the strings of her electric.
Diaz commands with her full-bodied voice as she alternates her feet to the rhythms like she’s walking in place. After some upbeat tunes, Joshua Epstein (from DEJJ) joins her onstage for a duet cover of Sarah Siskind’s “Lovins for Fools.” Surprisingly, Epstein is nailing the higher harmonies to Diaz’s dreamy melody, and they bring the audience into a lulled trance. We’re into it. Epstein eventually waves his way offstage and the band comes back for some new songs such as “The First Time” and “Take Everything,” which sounds, to me, like a darker Jenny Lewis.
After finishing strongly with her piece “Stay Together,” the Madi Diaz trio is cheered off by the swelling crowd as they begin to make their way for Miniature Tigers. I run into some friends while perusing the merch table. They’re Miniature Tigers fans, and we have a brief argument about their change in sound over the last four years. Personally, I feel like this new synth-pop style they’ve adopted is bullshit and totally abandons the adolescent charm of their earlier works, but they laugh me off. Besides, my pretentious opinions aren’t worth much here, as the 7-foot stage gap finally disappears.
Miniature Tigers start their set with the heavy couplets of “Lolita” in which the band members cuckoo like the birds in German clocks. This is the side of them I like. I get the impression that most of the audience are Tigers enthusiasts as the front row jumps up and down to their songs throughout their entire set. Miniature Tigers fluctuate between old and new songs like “The Wolf” and “Dream Girl.” However, my eyes are mostly on the energetic bass lines of Brandon Lee as he prances around to his own funky grooves.
Lead singer and guitarist Charlie Brand maintains a nonchalant demeanor as he thanks everyone for coming out. During “Goldskull,” Brand takes up the microphone, gets off the stage, and walks around the crowd as he sings. People jump around him as he snakes his way through the masses—hitting all his notes amid the chaos. Miniature Tigers finish their set with a couple more synthy tunes from their most recent release, Cruel Runnings. During their final song “Used to Be the Shit,” I offer to my friend that I couldn’t agree more with that title. He tells me to shut the fuck up.
The audience thanks them with high spirits and, by now, Urban Lounge is beginning to fill up nicely. The sound engineers set up Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s gear as well as take the curtains off two large light decorations on either side of the stage: each reading “JR.” After some time, the quartet take the stage and start off with their swinging tune “Morning Thought.” Epstein operates a synthesizer while co-frontman Daniel Zott holds a guitar and sings “Stop, break, nothing try/running around the park.” Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. pick flickering guitar riffs over easy harmonies and steady tempos. Somehow, they sound both happy and sad.
In tune, the audience picks up on the energy of the music as Zott’s up-and-to-the-side ponytail bounces along to “I Think It’s Gonna Rain.” Drummer Mike Higgins plays repetitive polyrhythms behind them, which adds a dynamic feeling of movement. This is my jam. Epstein explains that this is the beginning of their new tour and says he’s happy to be back. The crowd is happy, too. We cheer as the lights of the JR JR signs light up during “Tell Me” and attached bubble machines spray hundreds of transparent spheres onto the crowd. I don’t think any of us have been this stoked on bubbles since we were 10, but I miss this easy kind of happiness.
After it settles, Zott introduces their song “Simple Girl” as the first song they wrote together. I realize that I hadn’t picked up enough on the accusatory, satirical feeling of lyrics until now. Live, Zott and Epstein’s “Da da da”-s gain a momentum that takes away from the pleasantness of the music. It begins to seem like they’re fighting to contain their own cheeriness against the content of the words. The ending bleeds well into “Vocal Chords,” and the foursome bring the energy back to warmer temperatures.
With a nice blend of old and new songs, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. moves from the eerie “ When I Open My Eyes” to “Run,” to a funk song that I haven’t heard before, and finally with “A Haunting.” Epstein shares that the decision to play the last song came from a dream he had in which he performed the piece live with Kid Rock—who promptly told him to go fuck himself for playing it. No one seems quite sure what this dream means, but I think it’s safe to say that if Kid Rock doesn’t like something, then it’s probably pretty cool. Good call, Epstein.
After finishing their set with “We Almost Lost Detroit,” the band retakes the stage for their encore by covering Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” with Madi Diaz. Following this, the band ends with the breezy tune “Nothing But Our Love” and exit the stage to all the sounds humans use to convey enthusiasm. Mouths open and hollering, the audience watches them into the green room until the only thing left onstage is the vibrant hum of two, brightly lit JR JRs.
I left Urban Lounge that night with my head up toward the stars. Since I know it’s going to get cold soon, I’m thankful to be reminded how easily things can come together with just some friends, a trusty wall and little bit of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Thanks for letting us borrow these guys, Detroit. Let us know if you can spare them again sometime this winter.