The Drums Kickstart L.A.’s Heartbeat

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In an indie music scene replete with guitar-strumming, apathetic lead singers, The Drums’ Jonny Pierce is bringing back the frontman. He led the Brooklyn boys through a near-90-minute set Tuesday night that left the audience panting and drenched in sweat, and not just because of the Echoplex’s poor ventilation.

The show, put on by tastemakers Check Yo Ponytail 2, was the second of The Drums’ two consecutive sold-out gigs at the L.A. venue this week. The Echoplex was so packed, in fact, that it hit capacity well before The Drums went on at 11:30, making non-ticketholders such as myself have to miss the opening set by promising local act IO Echo. The Drums formed barely two years ago, but when they took the stage it was quickly apparent why they have crowds and critics wrapped around their fingers.

“This one is for you, L.A.” Pierce declared as the band began the sleepy “I Need A Doctor,” off of last month’s sophomore release Portamento.

It’s hard to take your eyes off of Pierce. For one thing, the guy’s got the best moves this side of Ian Curtis, even busting out the Joy Division frontman’s trademark elbow-swinging dance on more than one occasion. During mellower, reflective tunes like “Doctor,” Pierce managed to eschew the awkward sway-stand many instrument-less singers succumb to during slow numbers. Instead, he kept his performance compelling by gripping both hands around the mic, eyes closed and shoulders slumped in resignation, to create moments of intimate intensity.

But The Drums’ music is nothing if not driving, and during danceable fan favorites like “Forever and Ever Amen” the Echoplex’s lonely mirrorball never seemed more at home. Pierce knew just how to work the crowd – the man’s a firecracker, jumping, arching his back, and turning his back to the crowd, only to spin around, lean down and reach his hand out to one of the many frenzied ladies pressed to the front. And about that — I’ve been to plenty of shows fronted by swoon-worthy lead singers, but I’ve never heard girls full-on shriek like they did at this one save for old Beatles and Elvis reels (making Pierce’s ’50s-style letter jacket all the more appropriate).

But let’s be clear that The Drums are far more than a craze. Danceable as their brand of shoegaze-tinged post-punk may be, it is also fundamentally complex and moody. Their records feature some of the strongest bass lines in recent memory, and bassist Myles Matheny delivered them with a refreshed clarity and urgency Tuesday night. The lo-fi quality of their albums was largely absent live, and that’s a good thing – it may add to their nostalgic feel, but it also flattens Jacob Graham’s sparkling, guazy guitar work.  Live, it’s that warmth, boosted by a heavy dose of reverb, that separates the drums from their catchy-but-simple peers.

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The night’s standout moment came at the end of the set during the stripped-down ballad “Down by the Water,” from their 2010 self-titled debut. This was clearly the “our song” of every couple in attendance – of which there were many – as indicated by the widespread smooching that began almost as if on cue. Those of us flying solo were only drawn closer to stage: Pierce can dance, he can work the crowd, but above all he can belt. The full-bodied passion he puts into his vocal performance is exhausting just to watch, making it all the more impressive that he does this nearly every night amidst their current heavy slate of touring. The Drums play like they wouldn’t rather be anywhere else, and if you catch them live, chances are neither will you.

All photos (c) Andrea Domanick