Japandroids / Craig Finn and the Uptown Controllers Danforth Music Hall, Toronto ON, Feb 17

Japandroids / Craig Finn and the Uptown Controllers Danforth Music Hall, Toronto ON, Feb 17
Photo: Stephen McGill
Japandroids' second album, Celebration Rock, was written with the express purpose of sustaining the fist-pumping highs of their debut for the entirety of a live performance. Their latest, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, abandons that approach, embracing synthesizers, studio wizardry and (gasp) slowed-down tempos. Now faced with interpreting these once heretical elements on stage, how could the Vancouver duo sustain the energy levels on which they built their name?
The Hold Steady's Craig Finn kicked off the night with his three-piece band the Uptown Controllers. More shouter than singer, it was odd to see Finn so subdued as he offered songs from his two solo albums as well as some previews of his upcoming third effort, all of which felt tame compared to his work with the Hold Steady. Nevertheless, his verbose songs were a good fit for this crowd, which was dominated by 30-somethings.
Their rise from DIY act to headlining two nights at a Hall the size of the Danforth must challenge the minimalist aesthetic Brian King and David Prowse have cultivated over the last decade. They looked small on the relatively large stage, flanked by banks of LED lights as they kicked into "Near to the Wild Heart of Life." Similarly, hearing their songs stripped of any studio gimmicks is almost a step down. Almost.
Though King's guitar live lacks the massive heft of its studio counterpart, the restless energy inherent to all their music is amplified when you see the duo in person. King, decked out in a white buttonup, looked like he was wincing in pain with his eyes shut as he delivered each rousing number, peppering in new tracks with old favourites like "Fire's Highway" and "Wet Hair."
They still seemed somewhat uneasy about executing some of the new material, with King admitting that they were surprised every time they made it through without a hitch. He was similarly startled by the positive reaction that came with Prowse triggering the synth loop for "Arc of Bar." "You're the first audience to yell out 'Yeah!'" But this was a crowd bought in, one that seemed to know every inch of their catalogue old and new and King and Prowse responded in kind.
A Japandroids show used to be a sprint, as the band knocked out one rocker after another. But the relative preponderance of half-time slow-burners gave their set a great arc, with emotional peaks and valleys. The only major problem was their continued habit of taking a break to tune or catch their breath after each number, giving the set a bit of a stop-start feel.
The more lyric-heavy tracks from Near to the Heart… meant that King was more anchored to his mic than in the past. But the band were at their best during instrumental breaks, during which King would stand in front of Prowse's drum riser (or, at times, on his bass drum), the two feeding off of one another. The closer the two got together, the more intensity they brought.
They really hit their groove in the final stretch, knocking out "Younger Us," "Young Hearts Spark Fire" and "The House Heaven Built" in quick succession. To finish the night, they brought out Finn, to whom King had earlier dedicated "Continuous Thunder," to sing a cover of the Saints. More animated and looking far more comfortable singing the OG Australian punk's classic "(I'm) Stranded," than at any point during his own set, King and Prowse beamed at the wild animal they'd unleashed. The BPMs might have been taken down a notch, but Japandroids still know how to bring out the best in everyone around them, including each other.