Trees (Dallas, TX)
-Words by Jordan Buford // Photos by Ronnie Jackson –
It’s all in a name. That’s what they say, anyway; and that was probably what Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott were thinking when they formed Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
It’s not only an easy name to remember, but also one that gets you attention as soon as you hear it; sparking curiosity as to what exactly the band might sound like. In all honesty, I had never really listened to their music that much, though I knew who they were and had been well aware of their previous stops in the fine city of Dallas.
This night saw their return to Dallas, as they toured in support of their newly released album “The Speed of Things”. This was also their biggest Dallas show (at least headlining one) they had played thus far; and Trees was packed—balcony and all—even during the opening acts set. The crowd only grew as it neared time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. to start, packing in as tightly as they possibly could, showing no regard for that thing called “personal space” (no one seemed to care that theirs was being invaded, either.)
When the lights finally dimmed, massive amounts of cheering filled the venue, before drummer Mike Higgins and keyboard player Jon Visger descended from the staircase. The fans were excited to see them, but nothing to the extent they were when Daniel Zott came bounding down the stairs and onto the stage. Joshua Epstein followed right after, taking his place behind the keyboard on stage right (he also picked up a guitar), while Daniel wielded a bass on the first song. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Drummer then synth then vox/bass & guitar &keys
On the edge of far stage right there stood a letter “J”. Several light bulbs were fixed inside it, while an “R” was on the opposite side of the stage. There were also another “J” and “R” side by side next to the drum kit. All the letters lit up intermittently as the four guys did a little intro piece; Daniel, Joshua and Jon all crooning into their mics before starting their first song, “Hiding”. It was a fun tune to open with; very upbeat and happy (a fairly common thread their dance inducing songs share), as Daniel sang lead on it.
They switched things up as he walked over to the keyboard/synthesizer on stage left. At center stage there was a small drum kit (a snare and some cymbals) along with an electronic drum pad, and Joshua set his guitar down to focus solely on the keys.
They had only just began playing their original stuff, when they turned to one of their covers for the night. It was a rendition of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today”, and was completely different from how the original version sounds. The electronic elements weren’t even the biggest difference on it. The biggest difference and best part was that Daniel and Joshua co-sang on it, creating some gorgeous harmonies. Afterwards, Jon retreated to the back of the stage; completing the rhythm section as he picked up a bass, while Joshua bantered with the audience for a moment.
“How’s it going, Dallas?!” he asked, noting this was their third time to play a show in the city. “Every time it gets better and better.” he added. He then remarked that they had noticed a lot of signs in both English and Spanish when they drove through earlier, and that they wanted to do something at this show that would cater to both demographics.
“…We don’t usually plan on what we’re going to say…” he said, pulling a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolding it as he spoke. Daniel said different phrases in English. For example, “We hope you enjoy yourselves.” and then Joshua read of his “script”, doing his best to enunciate all the Spanish words correctly. “Thank you.” Daniel finished, with Joshua again offering a translation, “Gracias.”
It got the laughs from the fans, and now they turned their attention to their first LP, “It’s a Corporate World”, doing “An Ugly Person On a Movie Screen”. Those softer songs that dealt with different aspects of love were a good way to get the show going, sounding much more engaging in the live environment; but it was with their next track where they hit their stride.
Joshua unraveled the center microphone from the stand, taking on the role of frontman for “Don’t Tell Me”. He jumped on one of the monitors at one point, and made sure to pay attention to all sides of the stage and not just one section of the crowd.
Those letters on the sides of the stage that I mentioned earlier; atop each of them sit a machine, which revealed about halfway through this number to be bubble machines. They filled the air, causing the majority of this seemingly sold out crowd to revert to little kids. I mean that in a good way, even though it was funny to see adults in their 20’s and 30’s reaching into the air, desperately trying to pop as many bubbles as they could. It just created a sense of magic amongst the audience, and it’s amazing that something that’s really as simplistic as bubbles have that kind of power.
In the final minute of the song, Joshua found an opening in the crowd at the front of the stage and hopped into it, sending those around him into a frenzy as the crowd began jumping up and down along with him. They bled it right into their next song, as Jon exchanged his bass for a simple shaker. I’ll admit, this one was the only song I didn’t know and assume it was another cover. It was excellent, though, and the way the lights in the letters flashed on and off both at the start and end of the song created a striking ambiance.
Another more minimalist sounding song came next, in the form of “Morning Thought”. It was also one of a few songs that became a clap along, and that participation from the fans was highly encouraged by the band. “Holy shit, it’s good to be back!” Joshua shouted as soon as the song came to an end. “This is something we honestly don’t say too often…” he told the crowd as he continued the conversation. He then said this Dallas show was probably the best one their tour thus far (this was their ninth date of a 33-city tour). Obviously, the crowd was ecstatic to hear that, and made it known.
“We have a tree in our way.” Joshua joked while talking about what a nice place Trees was. He was referring to the segment of a tree that stretches from the stage floor to the ceiling; and then he began gently (almost seductively) stroking it. “…We have a lot more songs for you.” Joshua finished, before they broke into another fun track, “Run”. Propped up to the right of the drum kit was a massive ball, which, until now, had just appeared to be for décor. They started putting it to use now though, as an animated face (similar to the Mii’s you can make on the Nintendo Wii game console, for those familiar with that). It added an extra fun element to the song, especially since they had it programmed in synch to the music, as the face appeared to be bobbing and shaking its head to music.
Another little switch came afterwards, as Joshua manned the center drum kit, while Daniel again took up guitar duty, along with providing the lead vocals on “Mesopotamia”. More visuals were projected onto the ball for this one, and now it was a pixilated looking Adam and Eve. First they were all happy, living in bliss, and it went onto depict them being cast out from The Garden of Eden, complete with an apple flashing across the ball. All kind of fitting, especially given the lines “…let’s go back.” and “Life’s so different, or maybe not at all…”
Joshua let loose on that one, often leaping into the air and striking the cymbals as he landed. They made it a far more energetic and lively song than it sounds on the record (which was true for many of their songs this night). Daniel took over on that additional drum kit, while Joshua went back to stage right, picking up a small saxophone, which was used for “War Zone”. He also sang on it, hitting a beautiful falsetto tone; and went the song grew a little more intense, he made his way to the center mic, grabbing it and singing while again jumping about on the stage.
That final track from “The Speed of Things” was a surprising highlight of their set, particularly the sax solo that ended the song, and even kept the applause at bay, as the fans listened and watched intently. They made it seem like they might segue it directly into the next song; however, they soon stopped. Joshua mentioned they’d be doing a DJ set at another bar after the show was over (some folks were thrilled by that news). Talk then turned to the next song, which was a sing along. “But only at the end.” Joshua pointed out.
They weren’t let down, and before instructing the audience on what to sing on “Skeletons”, Joshua acknowledged that this was “by far the most people” they had played to in Dallas. Then, he asked the crowd to sing along with whomever they thought sounded better. “Or with whoever’s cuter or more handsome…” Daniel added, coming up with several more examples. That may have been the most fun part of that one, but it wasn’t the best. The best came after the sing-along, when Joshua proceeded to play his guitar with his teeth. You (or at least I) don’t see that al that often, but it’s one of those things that is Rock ‘n’ Roll in its purest form. He didn’t do it for just a few seconds, either. It lasted until the song was done, and even after that.
“Let’s dance, yo!” Joshua yelled as they carried the song over into “Vocal Chords”. Both he and Daniel were on guitars for that one, which proved to be a rather infectious number. The bubble machines also got some more use during it; and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, those tiny things again created a magic atmosphere.
“Is anyone here from Detroit?!” Joshua asked once that track was over. A few people roared back in response. He told everyone when he first started asking that question at shows years ago, it made him sad, because he just thought, “People are leaving Detroit.” But the more thought he put into it, he said he realized it was good thing for his hometown, because even though the people moved away, they still carried their Detroit pride with them.
“…I think people in Dallas kind of feel that same pride for their city. Am I right?” he asked. “Well, Dallas or…” he mentioned another town, and even though it was all in good fun, I won’ mention it specifically, since he joked the people there were “stupid” and “drunks” (don’t hate ‘em, I’m sure Dallas has or will get poked fun at, at some point during this tour, too. You just have to play to your crowd for the night.)
What wound up being the final song of their 56-minute was dedicated to Detroit, and Daniel and Joshua threw their arms up in the air to pump everyone up before “We Almost Lost Detroit” got underway. It was a cover of Gil Scott-Herons’ song, and arguably their best song of the night; and it also served as a nice way to pay respect to their hometown, even if they were far away from it.
“Thanks, Dallas!” Joshua said while the final notes rang out, as their set came to a semi-abrupt end. That time had flown by, and even though an encore was almost certain, it still made me a little sad it was already so close to being over.
“USA!” the crowd began chanting, which I admit was a bit odd, given “Encore!” or “One more!” are the standard go to, but with them hailing from the Motor City, it worked. “Dallas, you fucking rock!” Joshua said once they retook the stage. “True story.” he stated, as he talked about a dream he had the night before they left on this tour. In his dream, they were opening for Kid Rock, who he said was digging some of the songs they were playing. “Then we played a heavier song, and I turned around and he was mouthing ‘Fuck you.’ Then I turned back around and all of his fans were leaving.”
He had no ill will towards Kid Rock, and even noted if anyone there liked his music then that was cool. “But this ain’t a fucking Kid Rock show.” he pointed out, and they were going to do what they wanted to do.
What they wanted to do was, in my opinion, the most beautiful song they have in their arsenal, “A Haunting”. “But if you come back to haunt me, I would swear I heard you talking through the walls again. All night I’d be pretending every noise I heard was just your ghost.” Joshua sang on the chorus, while a projection from a webcam that was mounted on his keyboard was displayed on the ball, making for an interesting perspective.
“That got me warmed up.” Daniel remarked after the song was done. He had grabbed the main mic and was clearly chomping at the bit over what was up next and hopped about the stage. “I don’t give a shit what you think, I’m gonna dance on this one!”
Despite their album still being so fresh, “If You Didn’t See Me (The You Weren’t On the Dancefloor)” seems to have already become a classic, and was one some fans were hungry for since Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. had started. Fittingly, a disco ball spun around on that ball, though it did periodically change to other visuals. The crowd was really getting into that one, truly losing themselves in the music, and the party was taken to new heights when Daniel got on the “dance floor” so to speak. That is to say that he got down in the pit amidst some of the fans on stage left.
That could have been it and the fans would have been satisfied. But they had one more song planned for their 16-minute long encore portion, returning to their first LP and pulling out “Nothing But Our Love”. It was dreamy and mesmerizing from the start, and grew to be utterly electrifying, particularly at the end, when Jon laid his bass down and suddenly rushed the front of the stage, adding some extra percussion to the song as they ended things in spectacular fashion.
I was blown away. They may have an interesting, and one could even argue, laughable, name, but they know how to put on a real performance. This was one of those shows you really just had to be there and experience it firsthand to truly understand it and the atmosphere they created. It was something else though, and they succeeded in making this concert experience seem like something special.
That’s to say, it didn’t, not for a single second, feel like this was “just another stop” on their tour. Instead, the set felt tailor-made for the audience this night and they made a connection with everyone who was in attendance. Mike and Jon were described as “Detroit’s best” when Joshua formally introduced them. I’d have to agree, but is good as they were, it was Daniel and Joshua who owned the night.
They may be a bit quirky, a trait that was not only heard in their songs this night, but also seen by their attire. Joshua wore a shirt that had an atlas of the earth stretched across it (yeah, like what you saw as a kid; from elementary school on.), and while I couldn’t tell what Daniel had on his shirt, it was equally as vibrant.
That sets them apart from the rest, though; and I mean that word “quirky” as a term of endearment. After all, that’s what makes their songs stand out so much, because they are so different. It’s all very original, and if you ever get the chance to see them live, they’ll show you how a concert is meant to be done.