There aren’t many bands that still feel larger than life, but Japandroids are one of them. With their raw, incendiary sound and impassioned lyrics that can imbue even the strongest cynic with a thirst for adventure, Brian King and David Prowse make music that is both visceral and transformative. At a time when the mainstream music press seems content to dance on the grave of rock and roll, Japandroids’ continued relevance is a reminder that the genre still has not just a pulse, but a heart that beats in overdrive. As I transitioned from carefree college student to an adult with a 401k, Celebration Rock became the beer-swilling soundtrack that I turned to whenever I needed a reminder that growing up doesn’t have to be an act of total surrender. To me, these two humble men from Vancouver are mythic figures.
The problem with myths, though, is how disconnected they are from our reality. Even after Japandroids announced the end of their unofficial three year hiatus with a limited run of small club gigs, getting to one of their shows still felt like a Sisyphean task. Gene and I were ready to pull the trigger on scalped tickets, round trip flights to Toronto and an Airbnb, only to realize that he couldn’t make the (frankly pretty irrational) trip that weekend. But as fate would have it, those shows were just a warmup for a bigger and better tour in support of Near to the Wild Heart of Life, the first new Japandroids album in almost five years. So I got in touch with some friends and decided to head up to Boston. Even if I wasn’t crossing an international border, it was only right that I make some sort of pilgrimage.
With a solid contingent of fans already posted up at the front of the Royale stage just 15 minutes after doors opened up, it was clear that this was going to be a special evening. The fact that Craig Finn—the closest thing that punk rock has to a poet laureate— was the night’s sole opener further underscored that point. Compared to his work with The Hold Steady, Finn’s solo project dials back the Hüsker Dü and doubles down on the heartland anthems. The emphasis on atmosphere over aggression might be unexpected, but these subdued arrangements (performed with his backing band, The Uptown Controllers) provide extra space for Finn to show off his singular talents as a storyteller. Whether singing about watching the Twin Towers fall while drinking on a roof or getting your car stuck in a Minnesota snowbank, he has a distinct ability to conjure up specific images and use them to celebrate the human condition in all of its messy beauty. But don’t conflate the softer touch Finn brings to his latest single “Preludes” with onstage passivity: he was every bit of the impassioned frontman that Hold Steady fans have come to expect. After taking in 45 minutes of his wild gesticulation and manic stage wandering, it was clear that Craig Finn is still having a whole lot of fun up there.
That set would’ve been the highlight of any other evening, but tonight belonged to Japandroids. King and Prowse kicked things off with the eponymous opener of Near to the Wild Heart of Life, an ode to restlessness that perfectly bridges the gap between the band’s raucous past and more refined present. The wall-to-wall stack of amps at the back of the stage added some extra oomph to the seven Wild Heart tracks played that night, giving the songs a certain power that felt absent amidst the overdubs and acoustic guitar parts on their comeback album. A song like “True Love and a Free Life of Free Will” almost veers into sterile indie pop territory on the record, but the stripped back live context refocuses the listener’s attention on the solid songwriting structure underneath. The end result was a seamless live set filled with songs that felt both immediate and impactful.
Of course, there was no doubt everyone was there to hear the beer-soaked ballads of youthful indiscretion that made Post-Nothing and Celebration Rock so indispensable. Over the course of the set, King couldn’t help but comment on the distance between past and present. He seemed genuinely humbled by the fact that the duo worked their way up from Allston’s Great Scott to one of the biggest stages in Boston, and wistfully observed that “Younger Us,” a song already about longing for a time that’s passed, is itself a relic of their younger days.
The stage banter was a microcosm for the performance itself: A nostalgic undercurrent dominated by an overwhelming sense of clear-eyed joy. Given the long layoff since their last Boston show, this was the rare night where a band seemed genuinely capable of matching its audience’s enthusiasm. As fans pogoed and crowd-surfed, King explored all of the space available to him onstage, spazzing out with guitar in hand in some moments and sidling up to Prowse’s stage-right-facing drum kit in others. From my vantage point, I could see the pair exchange knowing smiles as they bashed out their best songs. There’s no doubt the present moment is just as sweet for them as the past ever was.
It’s hard to describe exactly what it feels like to experience something you’ve fantasized about for years. But as King strummed the opening chords to “The House That Heaven Built” and Prowse smacked his floor tom in time, I could tell I was living within one of those fleeting moments of rapture that the Japandroids write songs about. One where the troubles of the outside world ceases to exist. Where screaming the words to one of your favorite songs flanked by some of your favorite people is all that matters. It was all so intoxicating that seeing Craig Finn come back onstage to help cover a Boston-themed Hold Steady b-side felt like a comedown.
It might be hyperbolic to view a Japandroids concert as some kind of pinnacle of experience. It might be naive to see rock and roll as this transcendent force that can elevate people and bring them together. The reason that we lapse into this hyperbole is because sometimes it ends up being true. No matter what else might be happening in the world, it’s still worth chasing after those moments of ecstasy. And if they try to slow you down, tell ‘em all to go to hell.