By now the story of Death From Above 1979’s split-up and reformation is old news, but in case you need the Coles Notes: They formed in Toronto in 2001, released You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine in 2004, broke up in 2006 due to a fractured relationship between band members Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler, released other material that included The Rhythm Method, MSTRKRFT, and Grainger’s self-titled solo project to varying degrees of success, and then – to the joy of many a rock music fan – announced their return in 2011.
When Keeler and Grainger said they were bringing back the project, it seemed like a horde of now-old-enough-to-mosh DFA1979 fans were breathing great big sighs of relief. Because if their back-story has taught contemporaries one thing, it’s that it’s okay to disappear for a little while. Of course… it helps if your hiatus is defined by an album that has aged extremely well on iPods and in a city’s whose music scene has thrived in the last decade thanks to bands such as Broken Social Scene, Fucked Up, Crystal Castles, and Metric.
Pre-breakup, DFA 1979’s touring notably consisted of support slots, opening shows for the likes of My Chemical Romance, Billy Talent, and Nine Inch Nails. Now, they’re selling out big venues in their hometown (see: back-to-back nights at the Sound Academy in 2011 and last Thursday night at the Danforth Music Hall) and are major festival draws for events such as Edgefest and Wakestock. Not bad for a band that’s kept the public waiting (and waiting and waiting) for a follow-up record.
But if Death From Above 1979 is feeling the pressure of a sophomore slump, there are no signs of it when the pair gets on stage. And so they proved during their Boxing Day set of both old and new material, playing to 1,500 appreciative fans.
The first thing you notice about the band in concert is just how involved the crowd is. You can attribute it to hometown affection – but that’s probably selling it short. At a DFA show, the crowd truly gets riled up. Not in an aggressive “don’t get punched in the face” kind of way, but in a “genuinely excited to see DFA play” sort of way. Arms are in the air, bodies are being flung around, and people are screaming back lyrics.
The second thing you notice is just how loud they are. For a duo, the band makes a whole lot of noise – enough to rival The Black Keys (who fittingly blared over the venue’s soundsystem before DFA took to the stage.)
Back in 2011, they kept things simple with the words “Death From Above 1979” placed on a tombstone backdrop behind them. This time, they stripped down their stage props even further, making up for it instead with a fancy light show, complete with carefully timed blasts of steam.
They also brought with them plenty of new material for the crowd to sink their teeth into. After kicking off the show with “You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine”, they quickly brought out two of them – “Cheap Talk” and “Frankenstein”. Perhaps it was early – or perhaps the audience was just too stuffed with Christmas turkey to appreciate them – but it wasn’t until they returned to familiar territory with fourth song “Turn It Out” that things seemed to really pick up. The squealing bass from Keeler punctuated the song’s ending, giving way to distortion and Grainger’s cymbals as the duo transitioned into another crowd pleaser – this time in the form of “Blood On Our Hands”. On this, Grainger delivered his vocals with more of a brutal yell than he does on record, helping to up the energy. It was short, it was punchy, and it certainly got the crowd prepared for the rest of the night to come.
“Black History Month” was another big offering from the band, receiving instant cheers following its first few notes. It’s the type of song that builds up and up and up, progressively getting heavier as Grainger (and practically everyone in attendance) sings: “Hold on, hold on, children.” The song’s instrumental ending of a repeated keyboard line was paired with feedback, carrying into another pair of new songs – “Crystal Ball” and “Gov’t Trash”. The latter, Grainger explained, contained the best bass solo the audience would ever hear. He also mentioned that it was his sister’s favourite song. She’s definitely onto something as the song played well and fits in nicely amongst their older offerings.
Keeler took a break from his commanding presence on bass and briefly hopped on keys for “Going Steady”, another big one with the crowd that saw people streaming into the mosh pit. For the better part of the evening, Keeler was the one to watch, offering up an assault of sound and hair flips as he played his bass amidst a wall of distortion and feedback.
Grainger, to his credit, commanded the microphone with energetic vigour and interacted well with the crowd during moments of banter. “Little Girl” was introduced as a song written when his niece was still in utero – some 10 years ago. She was in the crowd that night, Grainger explained, and it was her first DFA show. This effectively made everyone in the audience wish they had been that cool at nine years of age.
Grainger also told the audience that it was six months since DFA’s last show, an explanation of sorts about any of the night’s kinks.
“After we play about three or four shows in a row, we get really good and fast. And we don’t take breaks between songs. And we don’t breathe heavily…” Grainger offered. From across the stage, Keeler chimed in: “We also don’t eat turkey two days in a row, usually.”
This led to a rather interesting side note – Grainger explaining that recently Morrissey had asked about taking DFA1979 on tour as a support act. Don’t hold your breath for that one, though. According to Grainger it wouldn’t last very long. He’d say something stupid or Moz would smell the cheeseburger scent emanating from his armpits and they’d get kicked off almost instantly. Alas.
They ended the main portion of their set with “Always On”, another new one. On this, Keeler provided heavily distorted, robotic vocals – just his second time at the microphone that night (his first coming in “Pull Out” as he provided the counter to Grainger’s chorus.)
After a brief break, the pair returned to the stage for more moshing to “Dead Womb”, breakout single “Romantic Rights”, new song “Nothing Left”, and “Do It!” It was on this last one that a full-on mosh erupted for their sweaty swan song as more smoke filled the stage for the duo’s final instrumentals.
DFA1979’s Thursday night show served as a big reminder of their impact on Toronto’s music scene and a promising sign of things to come for a pair that knows how to keep people waiting. No one in the crowd seemed to be complaining about the delay – it seems as long as they play the hits, the general populace is happy to mosh/crowd surf/scream along, even with mounds of turkey in their stomachs.
Yes, a decade is a long time to wait on a second album and it would be nice to have something new and concrete for their next appearance in the city, but with Death From Above 1979 you generally take what you can get – and thankfully what you get is pretty damn good.