Review: JR JR Throws the Most Charming House Party Ever

Back in July, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. changed its quirky name to the simplified JR JR, it must have seemed a curious move for both admirers and music critics. But as with anything the Detroit pair do, there was careful thought and consideration behind the decision. In a lengthy post on their official website, the dance-rock duo explained it had nothing to do with the famous NASCAR driver (a self-professed fan of the band) and everything to do with his fans and the confusion that ensued.

“We’ve had people drive long distances to shows only to be disappointed when they realize it’s a neurotic Jew and wild-haired gentile from Detroit they’ve paid to see. A number of times now, we’ve received hope-filled inquiries from people who have dying relatives that only want to meet Dale Earnhardt Jr. (the driver) before they pass.”

Daniel Zott (the Jew) and Joshua Epstein (the gentile) were uncomfortable with legitimately upsetting people in this manner. And so, after building a reputation under their original moniker for almost five years, they switched things up. Thankfully, that’s the only thing they’ve really changed. As their show in Fort Lauderdale at the Culture Room last night proved, they’re the same heartfelt and genuine music-makers they’ve always been. From the outset, JR JR was determined to throw the most charming house party ever. Unfortunately, the majority of South Florida missed it. The paltry attendance at Culture Room was made worse by the persistent rain outside. A band as talented and fun as JR JR deserves better than that; but to their credit, Epstein and Zott lit all the fires and were raring to go. The crowd in attendance at the intimate show surely had no regrets braving the weather.

Opening for JR JR was Brothertiger, a one-man band starring Brooklynite John Jagos, dual keyboards, two drumsticks, and heavily filtered vocals. It was sort of white-boy electro-pop that's all Oxford dress shirts and bedroom production. Reminiscent of Cut Copy but on a smaller scale, Brothertiger was like '80s electronic music crashing into '90s R&B, fronted by an android version of Dave Gahan; he was a robot searching for love. There were plenty of cavernous echoes floating above sustained high notes and organs to fill a dozen neon church masses.

When fans post a photo of the show on either Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #JRJRTour, their picture will print on site, framed in a customized JR JR border, and come with a discount coupon for band merchandise.

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Despite the underwhelming crowd size, once JR JR bounded onto the stage, fans in attendance made more than enough noise, filling the venue with cheers loud enough to stop the evening’s drizzle. Bursting with energy, Zott swung his trademark ponytail around wildly and Epstein climbed atop a speaker, singing from his makeshift perch like a carefree Humpty Dumpty (who damned near broke himself jumping down.) The air was filled with a bubbly vigor that then popped and fizzed with actual bubbles from a machine at the foot of the stage.

Driving home their shiny new name change, behind the band stood four giant LED letters spelling out “JR JR.” Patterns, lights, and film clips flashed across their name, shifting in color and tone with each song. Another cool technology the duo have introduced on their 2015 tour is a photo-printing machine that employs the wonders of futuristic social-media savvy. When fans post a photo of the show on either Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #JRJRTour, their picture will print on site, framed in a customized JR JR border, and come with a discount coupon for band merchandise. Beyond the hits – “James Dean,” “Nothing but Our Love,” “Simple Girl” – several other songs stood out, mostly for the main reasons everyone falls in love with JR JR: “We Almost Lost Detroit,” the Gil-Scott Heron cover that JR JR have truly made their own over the years, had real raw power that resonated through a crowd of waving hands.

“For My Brother” is an ode to Daniel Zott’s brother, John. The track is off the band’s eponymous new record. More important is the story that Zott told before they played the song. Years ago, John was a top recruit for the hallowed University of Miami baseball program. On his was down to Florida, he and his then girlfriend had a terrible car accident that cost John his scholarship due to injury and also his girlfriend, who never forgave him for the accident. For John, who was on the boards at the rear of Culture Room, it was incredibly difficult to return for the first time to the area that effectively ended a portion of his life. As they performed the tender “For My Brother,” video clips of John playing baseball as a little kid filled the giant JR JR letters. The song itself is a bit of sweet melancholia soundtracked by Ben Harper-type neo-soul.

Because the concert couldn’t end on such a bittersweet note, after a tearful pause, the band left and returned sporting matching neon jackets that bore JR and JR on the back of each one. The first tune of the encore, “Gone,” truly put Epstein and Zott’s complementary vocal harmonies on display as they belted out the song with little more than an acoustic guitar and a few beats.
It was with the second-to-last song that JR JR completed its wooing of the audience. “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t on the Dance Floor)” is a firecracker of exuberant pop music. Engaged in some sort of 21st-century tribal dance, Zott hopped off the stage and into the crowd, bouncing along with the entire room as if the floor weren't made of concrete but was instead a massive trampoline.

A smallish crowd, crappy weather, and a crew member stressed about returning to the site of a traumatic life experience – this show could have been a hot mess. Indeed, it was just the opposite. Just as the boys in JR JR have always shown love through their music, their efforts to do the right thing for both family members and fans, that love was reciprocated tenfold, a trend that should follow the band far and wide, regardless of whatever they name themselves. 
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Angel Melendez is an unabashed geek and a massive music nerd who happens to write words (and occasionally take photos) for Miami New Times. A graduate of Florida Atlantic University and an accomplished failure at two other universities, Angel is a lush and an insufferable know-it-all, and has way better taste in music than you. His wealth of useless knowledge concerning bands, film, and Batman is matched only by his embarrassingly large collection of Hawaiian shirts and onesies.
Contact: Angel Melendez