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all words: Phil Runco
all photos: Shauna Alexander

Surfer Blood’s JP Pitts and The Drums’ Jonny Peirce sure aren’t afraid to strut their stuff. On Sunday night, the frontmen shimmied their shoulders back and forth. They twirled. They pranced from one side of the stage to the others. But while there was some similarity in their physical repertoire, those moves seemed to originate from much different places.


Nearly everything about Peirce’s performance feels rooted in self-conscious showmanship. He has a larger catalogue of motion – doing the robot, bowing, mock slapping face, pushing his hands down at his side, swinging his arms – which he executes while mugging with eyes staring off into the distance.  It all comes off like well-choreographed theatrics.  When he draws a square with his finger to illustrate “your perfect photograph on the wall” during “Book of Stories”, you know it’s probably not the first time pantomiming the lyric.


Pitts is a different story.  There’s something endearingly awkward about his posturing.  It feels spontaneous.  It feels as if Pitts, standing front and center with so many eyes upon him, feels obliged to do more than just stand pat, and this is the best he could come up with.  It feels nerdy.


The contrast is a tidy reflection of their bands’ performances on the whole: The Drums well-oiled, flashy, and slightly synthetic; Surfer Blood unassuming, occasionally cumbersome, and utterly sincere.


The Drums occupied the front half of the co-headlining bill.  The New York foursome may be touring to sold-out audiences abroad, but here in the States – where their self-titled debut just saw release this week – they had to settle for a half full 9:30 Club.


The size of the crowd and its relative politeness failed to stifle the band’s energy.  The Drums’ brisk ten song set packed a significantly bigger punch than its slightly disappointing LP.  In fact, it was the kind of performance that makes you question the band’s decision to pull back its aesthetic and play up chintzy 80s signifiers so frequently on the record.  Freed from its laughably wet production, “Me and the Moon” boomed behind Connor Hanwick’s drumming.  The band tore into “Book of Stories”, giving its three or four hooks the full blown treatment they each deserve.


Peirce’s vocals don’t play it nearly as cool live: they undulated, shifting all over the place from falsetto to a deep – and faintly creepy – tenor, often within a single note.  He pushed ballads “We Tried” and “Down by the Water” into more melodramatic territory with the rest of the band swelling accordingly behind him.  (In addition to its two guitarists, the band was assisted with programmed synths, and, on “Make You Mine” prerecorded whistling).


Interestingly, the set ignored most of the material that played up surf elements initially associated with the act (“Let’s Go Surfing!”, “Saddest Summer”).  Instead we got almost exclusively The Drums’ (light) spin on Factory Records post-punk, which, while perhaps not sustainable for the band in the long run, was pulled off convincingly enough for a night.


After making the audience wait maybe a little too long for a Sunday night, Surfer Blood emerged bathed in blue lighting, the “Jurassic Park” orchestral score providing the soundtrack to their triumphant climb to the top of the District totem pole: DC9, Black Cat, and, now, 9:30 Club.  That Surfer Blood accomplished this ascent in a little over six months is not just a testament to its willingness to hit the road, but also the broad appeal of debut Astro Coast.


From opener “Fast Jabroni” to closer “Anchorage”, the band plucked that album’s eight best songs – leaving “Slow Jabroni” and instrumental “Neighbour Riffs” on the cutting room floor – while mixing in two new songs and, at end the night, a fittingly sloppy cover of Pavement’s “Box Elder”.


Having caught the band’s prior two shows – BUT I WAS THERE – I can say some things haven’t changed.  Band members still look barely legal.  And they still have a frustrating tendency to slow a song’s pacing, zapping its momentum; though, to be fair, only “Slowly Jabroni” and “Catholic Pagans” in particular suffered on this evening.


That small gripe aside, Surfer Blood has made some big strides this year.  It nailed the tropical rhythm of “Take It Easy”.  It allowed “Harmonix” to steadily build towards an intensified, cathartic climax.  And I can’t say enough about what the band does with “Anchorage”.  The song is just devastating live.  Drummer Tyler Schwartz beat the shit out of the skins all night, but nowhere was he felt more than here, holding together the song’s seven lumbering minutes.


The two new entries slid in seamlessly with the other material while still retaining their own identity.  The songs – “I’m Not Ready” and an untitled number – intriguingly don’t exploit the loud-soft dynamic as blatantly as the Astro Coast material, instead locking into steady, tighter grooves   They’re promising signs that the band is not resigned to resting on its laurels.

Which is probably for the best, as Pitts doesn’t exactly have a dancing career to fall back on.