Lucy Dacus rang in 2020 at Johnny Brenda’s with Mal Blum, Addy, and LCD Soundsystem (sorta)
To begin at the ending, as well as the beginning, Lucy Dacus led a packed house at Johnny Brenda’s in a chorus of “ahhh ahhhhhh, ahhh ahhhhhh” as the clock struck midnight, a new year and new decade began, and the snare drum beat drop of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” kicked in, ushering in a melee of oversize balloons, streamers, flashing lights, and moving bodies.
“Thank you for indulging us with that,” Dacus said after it was all done. The Richmond, Virginia singer-songwriter explained that it’s a personal New Year’s tradition for her and her friends; they get together, she wears the same sparkly black shirt, and they all listen to “Dance Yrself Clean” as the ball drops. And just because she was the main attraction at this particular New Year’s get-together, she didn’t want to do things any differently; the opening track of This Is Happening was cued up and piped through the PA, Dacus packed the stage with her her band, the openers, and her crew, and the room collectively partied.
If there was any uncertainty why Dacus was chosen to ring in 2020 — her acclaimed sophomore record Historian is pointed and powerful, but probably not the first thing one might think of when they think about party music — Tuesday’s performance made it clear that her songs work on multiple levels. Yes, they might be heavy and often quite sad, but they take on a dynamic life onstage with her band (featuring longtime Philly scene faves Dom Angelella on bass and Ricardo Lagomasino on drums, with Jacob Blizard on guitar), and provide fans with a communal, cathartic, completely joyful experience.
That went from the jogging rocker “Addictions,” which landed early in the set, to the formidable “Night Shift,” the supremely relatable six-minute burner that had the room singing along to its post-breakup frustrations. Angelella and Dacus managed to skillfully execute the dual lunge during “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” that’s become a playful highlight of their live set this year (the judges’ panel awarded extra points due to tiny size of the JBs stage). Her cover of “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins also expertly worked its own famous beat drop to the room’s delight. And of course there was the other cover that closed the set, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” a song with the power to uplift no matter the setting. Coming after “Dance Yrself Clean,” the energy was perfect.
There were also moments of sublime tenderness too. Dacus’ run of 2019 singles started last January with “Fool’s Gold,” a moving song she told the Philly crowd she’d begun writing the previous New Year’s Day. “I was feeling anxious heading into the New Year,” she said. “And it was a song about how that’s okay.”
She also welcomed her mom, Sandy Dacus, to the stage to join in on backup vocals on “My Mother & I.” She was also present for night one of Dacus’ three-night stand, while her brother Charlie joined in on drums for night two. “You missed Charlie, but you didn’t miss out, because you guys get the person who’s responsible for both of us,” Dacus said, and as she accompanied the song on haunting Pocket Piano tones, with Angelella and Blizard seated in the lotus position on the stage and strumming acoustic guitars, the Dacus women sang in beautiful harmonies that had folks all around the room reaching for tissues.
That balance of sensitivity and raw rock riffs was reflected in the show’s openers. Addy, a Richmond band featuring Dacus’ childhood friend Adam Watkins on guitar and vocals, kicked off the night with atmospheric acoustic introspections that built to punchy conclusions. They were similar in vibe to Great Grandpa and Saintseneca, with possible roots in the Neutral Milk Hotel world of indie folk, and have an LP on the way in 2020 that we’ll be listening for.
Mal Blum and their band The Blums took the middle slot with cranked-to-eleven energy, punchy pop punk structures, and sick lead licks by guitarist Audrey Zee Whitesides (also of Speedy Ortiz, and recipient of many “let Audrey solo!” cheers throughout the set). Bangers like “Odds,” “I Don’t Want To,” and the seasonally-appropriate deep cut “New Year’s Eve” that’s recently seen a new life through TikTok, kept the tempo fast and furious, but the band brought it down for the ruminative “Salt Flats,” which is about personal trauma and how to overcome it. “This is my favorite song on the new record,” said Blum. “It’s also incredibly sad. But that might be okay with you, because you self-selected to come here tonight.” Exchanging smiles with their bandmates, Blum added “These are our people.”
At one point during Dacus’ set, Angelella took a moment to announce that “Johnny Brenda’s is sick,” lauding the Fishtown venue for being a constant hub for local musicians over the past decade and a half. Dacus concurred, saying “We’ve played here, what, three times? Six times after this weekend? Seven hundred times? Y’all have a special place here.”
Her appreciation extended to her bandmates, and she joked about the extensive run of shows behind Historian and the 2019 covers project by saying “We’ve been touring for decades.”
“We all lived in Philly at some point or another, and this is our last show of the decade, and our last show together for a long time.” Looking at Angelella, Lagomasino, and Blizard, she said “I love y’all, you’re all good people.”
On New Year’s Day, Dacus Tweeted her 2020 plans, a year to herself after several years on the road: “taking the year off to vibe, see y’all in 2021.” We’ll be right there waiting. In the meantime, check out photos and fan videos from Johnny Brenda’s below.