Vans: the quintessential skater shoe, and a co-opted staple of “alt” kids for the last few decades. When one thinks of Vans they’re likely to think of the angry kid in high school who listened to too much A Day to Remember and Man Overboard. OK, fair enough, I’m just describing my own past, but to the company’s credit, they know how to put on a damn good pop-up concert/art installation/skate park hybrid that offered Detroiters something a little new from the stream of performances at the city’s prototypical clubs.
This past weekend (Jan. 24 through 27) Vans put together a wide variety of artists to perform at The Jefferson School in Midtown Detroit, which featured not only a stage for the artists but also classrooms filled with art installations and an entire skate park set up in the gymnasium on the third floor. Have I mentioned that the entire experience was free if you took the time to snag an RSVP online?
The first night began with sets from Detroit’s own Protomartyr and master of funk R&B Thundercat, which my coworker Jack Brandon covers below.
Friday night featured a private after party at Third Man Records for VIP ticket holders with DJ sets from the University of Michigan’s very own Matthew Dear and his label-mate Shigeto (also from Ann Arbor). Attendees didn’t really start to stream in until 11:30 p.m., but the artists kept a steady stream of their widely praised house music during our entire stay. Yet, it seemed to function as more of a social function for the VIPs, whose interest in the beats was transient at best. Nonetheless, the music was killer, the bar was open and the Third Man Records storefront has always been one of the best and most unique spots to catch live music in Detroit.
Saturday brought the all-star combo of Detroit’s Danny Brown and LA’s Joyce Manor. In what can either be a stroke of luck or genius by Vans, the two artists were a match made in heaven for the alt/punk crowd — Joyce Manor being one of the scene’s biggest pop-punk bands today and Danny Brown’s upbeat, biting hip hop being some of the most widely beloved among this crowd.
Joyce Manor, whose tracks average approximately a minute and a half in length, was able to rip through over 20 songs during their 45-minute set, keeping small talk to a minimum and the snare drum on blast. As a band that started with loveable, albeit messy melodies, their growth has begun to leak into their back catalogue, opening with fan favorite “Heart Tattoo” and then deep cut “Derailed,” both of which have truly never sounded better. They only tossed in a couple of newer tracks from 2018’s Million Dollars to Kill Me, balancing their set with aggressive older tracks among the more pop-inflected new ones. Since their inception, Joyce Manor has been an unstoppable force in pop punk, and Saturday’s performance absolutely cemented them as some of the genre’s greatest.
After my few days at the pop-up, I can only hope Vans returns next year (hopefully in warmer weather as well), taking advantage of all the ways Detroit has begun to thrive as a cultural center for art and music. Transforming a Midtown school into a small artsy haven proved to be an incredible experience, bringing together artists of multiple genres and mediums without pretentiousness or inaccessibility. With so much to do in Detroit now, House of Vans offered a small glimpse at everything this city has to offer.
— Dom Polsinelli, Daily Arts Writer
In the gym of The Jefferson School, Protomartyr’s maturity and aggression juxtaposed with a space of youth and insecurity recontextualized the sound of Protomartyr’s music. When I saw them back at The Blind Pig a few months ago, I had thought them noisy, past prime, but in a high school gym, I understood them better. So many teenagers want to converge with the assertiveness that Protomartyr exhibits. The group was relentless, enduring. Lead singer Joe Casey stands on stage like he’s pissed off at you, barking and singing, and I could only share that confident, this-is-how-I-feel-so-you-will-too energy he radiated. Putting this post-punk outfit on the stage of the gym, performing without any fright or indecisiveness turned me into a believer. There’s virtue in being strong willed. Protomartyr ended their set by reminding the audience to be kind to those left out in the cold, which resonates with truth in this current weather. Despite the nostalgia of the high school, Protomartyr didn’t let the audience indulge too much.
The sobriety of Protomartyr was dispelled, however, the moment Thundercat and company took the stage. He sauntered on stage, effortless, bathed in colorful light and behind a set sunglasses. They started to jam, and the intensity of the first set melted away, and the atmosphere of the gym felt permeable; so much so, actually, that a few members of the audience felt it acceptable to heckle the House of Vans sound engineers during the set. Thundercat paid it no mind. The compassion that comes with jamming and solos won out, in the end, and by the time closers “Friend Zone” and “Them Changes” played, I felt like I had experienced the ends of an extreme: Protomartyr’s shouts of self and Thundercat’s easy connectedness.
— Jack Brandon, Managing Arts Editor