Pictures by Kimberly Stavac
It was hot out, close to 300 degrees and the air was oppressive- like student loans or credit card debt. Everything in Philadelphia smelled like sweat and thunderstorms. People walked slowly, trudging through the humidity and the cab had the air on, but shit, not nearly enough. The night would end with a cold shower. It was a guarantee. How hot would Johnny Brenda’s be? Sweltering probably- one of those nights where every beer you order is accompanied by water, your very own Batman & Robin of inebriation and hydration.
Japandroids, the raging rock duo from the wilds of Canada, were in town. It was sold out. The opener was the Canadian rapper Cadence. Canadians are so polite, but how are they at rocking and rapping? How would they handle the heat? No jokes about hockey and no jokes about the heat and the night should go along just fine.
Start with the music bumping in the downstairs bar of Johnny Brenda’s because it’s more than worth mentioning. It was amazing. I don’t know who the DJ was, but his penchant for 90’s R & B jams was absolutely delightful and I haven’t seen Future Wife smile that much in a while. Everyone downstairs was smiling. Montel Jordan will do that I guess. Follow it up with Bone Thugs ‘n Harmony, Janet Jackson and 112 and we have a river dance mash up of hipster euphoria. It was hard to leave, but there was work to be done. They wouldn’t let you upstairs unless you already had a ticket or were on the list. It’s cool, we’re certified. With each step, the temperature rose.
Cadence was in the middle of his set- easy to spot not only because he was the one on stage rapping, but because he was the one black dude in the middle of a white dude convention. But man, homeboy was aggressive and his rapping had personality. He seemed lost in his music, deep within his own little world as he spat out rhymes with ferocity and swagger. His DJ, who Future Wife felt looked like Napoleon Dynamite, barely moved but he didn’t have too- his beats and music provided more than enough movement. The heat was creeping in, but Cadence wouldn’t be stopped. He’s from Montreal, far away from the sopping humidity of a summer night in the mid-Atlantic and as the sweat poured off of him, he kept on going- song after song of brutally melodic and wildly stomping hip hop. The crowd was receptive and in the corner, both members of the Japandroids stood, taking in and enjoying the rapper’s set. We will have learned at least one thing, Canadians stick together.
After Cadence, it was the Japandroids. Looking at their stage set up and assuming their set is going to be loud is like looking at dark, heavy clouds and assuming it’s going to rain. Guitarist Brian King’s rig consists of two Fender amps, two Marshall amps and a large Ampeg. A lesser man would be scared, I was curious. The amps loomed in the corner of the stage like a gang of thugs in a dark alley- they looked like trouble. But then King seemed like such a nice guy and he spent what seemed like five minutes introducing himself and drummer David Prowse, thanking the crowd for being there and proclaiming the evening to be not just any evening, but a battle between Friday night and the heat.
“Let’s let Friday night win,” he said to loud cheers.
Then the music started and stating the obvious right off the bat, it was loud. We probably could have heard the entire show from our South Philly apartment. King’s guitar sounded like three guitars stacked on top of each other having a pillow fight. From the get go the balcony shook and the Japandroids unleashed their unyielding and maniacal organized chaos. The first song was a warm up song according to King and on most nights, it’s followed by him cranking up all five thousand of his various volume knobs. Not tonight, though. He said it was the first show of their tour where he was forcing himself to listen to the sound guy and not immediately throw away everything they had run through at sound check. Smart move, a veteran move. It’s the musician’s equivalent of a trust fall.
“Adrenaline Nightshift,” from the new album Celebration Rock was next and Johnny Brenda’s seemed to explode as the crowd leapt up and down, sang along, threw their fists in the air and Instagrammed the shit out of what was happening. It like we were in the middle of a food fight, just without the food and the energy level of King and Prowse was Goddamn admirable. Prowse’s motor was magnificent and King used every inch of his half of the stage. Any poor son of a bitch playing bass would have had to do so from the bathroom. There just wasn’t any room for him, both in terms of physical and musical space. Whereas in recent years, the Black Keys have started filling out their sound with touring musicians, I can’t see the Japandroids ever doing that. They seem to fill the space better than the Keys, but that could largely be due to the volume. It was fucking loud, man; like questioning whether or not I was too old to be there loud. Loud is awesome, but isn’t necessarily better- especially when definition gets lost in the process. Even with a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you a word King was singing and while a guitar player might have been able to decipher exactly what he was playing, there was no way an average person could. It was a brilliant wash of sound- for better or worse.
But the crowd didn’t seem to mind and in fact, they seemed to flat out not give a stone cold flying fuck. This was a religious experience for them and an exercise all of your demons and truly let each and every one of your ya-ya’s out kind of rock show. Downstairs a mosh pit started to break out and I started wondering about the structural integrity of the balcony. I loved the interplay between King and Prowse, showing a kin ship on stage that most band’s dream of having. They poured every ounce of energy that they had into each song. What the hell do these guys do after a show? They either pass out from exhaustion or go run a marathon fueled by pure adrenaline. It’s one of the other. I definitely can’t see them kicking back with a beer.
“The House That Heaven Built,” the lead single from Celebration Rock, seemed like the evening’s high water mark and the walls of Johnny Brenda’s shook with the call and response back and forth between the band and the crowd, both of whom were completely drenched in sweat. The heat was overtaking us all, as was the smoke machine and combined, a near-apocalyptic vibe embraced the room. It became hard to see as red and blue smoke engulfed the crowd- must have made it hard for the Instagrammers and Tweeters and Facebookers. As the visibility decreased, it seemed like volume increased- along with hysterical chaos creating a cathartic, end of days dance party- foreshadowing of the massive thunderstorm that welcomed everyone back into the real world once the show was over.
As lightning illuminated Girard Avenue and thunder claps rumbled above us, rock show beads of sweat glistened on everyone’s foreheads. Japandroids are either destined for bigger rock stages or years of intimate shows like the one we all just witnessed. Either way, they will not fade away like the stage did amidst the smoke of the over-worked smoke machine.
What they are doing is purity and purity doesn’t run, man. Purity just keeps on keeping on. Purity won’t be denied. And as long as purity is allowed to cross the border, purity will continue to keep fueling the Japandroids and their bombastic live shows.