The veneer of kitsch seems thick on Detroit duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. — there’s that name first of all, not to mention the pair’s NASCAR apparel they take the stage in — but as Tuesday’s show at Seattle’s Tractor made clear, the buzz surrounding these guys has far more to do with their infectiously agreeable electro-pop tunes and stage persona. Beyond the surface elements, there’s little dependence on artificially constructed displays of irony, which I think we can all be grateful for.
After only seconds on stage, Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott shed the racecar jumpsuits to reveal dapper suits underneath. With only Zott’s Citgo baseball cap as a reminder of the NASCAR connection, the two launched into a set populated with covers and most of the songs from their debut, It’s a Corporate World, released just that day.
It’s a Corporate World is full of melodic pleasures, from the alternately soaring and shambling single “Morning Thought” to the whistle-backed, jangly “Simple Girl.” Live, the songs’ electronic elements are cleanly reproduced, but the guitars are rougher and the voices more exuberant, adding a pleasingly ragged charm to the silky smooth album renditions.
The duo expertly maneuvered around a number of covers, tagging a humorous coda of “I Will Always Love You” onto the end of another song and reveling in the harmonies of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” a track present on the band’s first EP. Their cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit,” present on Corporate World, recreates the song’s urgency, but it was Tuesday’s barn-burning performance of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” (with a guest appearance from opener EMA and a saxophone solo from Epstein) that really set the stage ablaze.
It’s hard not to think a band named Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is trying a little too hard, but that’d be just about the last way I’d describe Epstein and Zott, whose charismatic, friendly and straightforward stage presence just added to the show’s delightful atmosphere.
Yes, there are giant wooden Js and Rs lined with flashbulbs, and yes, they outfit audience volunteers with skeleton masks when they come on stage for a song. Yes, there are even bubble machines. The elements of kitsch are there, but they do little to obfuscate the simple truth — Epstein and Zott have written some tightly constructed pop songs, and they can play the hell out of them live.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. makes it big — with songs like these, the odds are good — it’ll be because of more than hip indie posturing.