The Rubens at U Street Music Hall

The Ruben, soulful rockers from Australia, perform at DC's U Street Music Hall. Photo: The Rubens

WASHINGTON, October 22, 2013 — The Rubens are something of an anomaly on the American pop scene. Okay, since they’re from Australia, that might seem self-evident. But when they’re playing live in the States, opening for Grouplove as they did in their recent U Street Music Hall appearance here, it’s understood that they’ll still be viewed through the prism of American music and pop music in general.

In a different reality, one that emphasized different aspects of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, it would be easy to define the Rubens as a dominant mainstream sound. But instead, it’s 2013 and they’re playing in clubs like the U Street Music Hall, a smaller venue and atmosphere that perfectly fit their needs.

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What’s interesting about seeing the Rubens in the U.S. is just how young this band actually is, given how much success they’ve already garnered in their short career. Even though they were the opening band here, they’ve created a healthy amount of buzz leading up to the recent release of their self-titled album in the States (released in 2012 in the land of Oz).  The band has only been around since 2011, but they’re already chart toppers in Australia.

The normal assumption for young non-U.S. band like this one is that must have worked for a long time in the trenches of Australia – or in some cases Europe – before being able to gain any kind of traction or recognition at all in this country. That clearly not the case, however. Instead, they’ve skipped all the seemingly pre-ordained early and intermediate steps, arriving on these shores in what seems like record time.

Watching the Rubens on stage, it’s kind of hard to ignore their age. They’re unabashedly youthful and brash – or at least front man Sam Margin is that way at least half the time. The band’s very nervousness and antsiness is quite intriguing. Initially it seems as if they’re attempting a balancing act with regard to audience expectations. But that’s quite caustically thrown away when they start to perform.

The moment they begin to play, you can see that this is an extremely self-confident band. That’s all the more surprising considering they’re navigating relatively unfamiliar territory for performers in their age bracket. It’s not that the sound they’re projecting hasn’t been attempted before. It’s just that it comes off as something new and a genuine breath of fresh air. Combining elements of ‘60s guitar pop with a healthy dose of ‘60s soul is something that hasn’t been witnessed once in recent years. But the Rubens put a 21st century spin on the whole affair, that’s less intentional than it a byproduct of their generation.

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The Rubens add a strong mix of energy and bravado to their sound that makes traditions rooted back in the early Boomer generation sound fresh, new, and virtually undiscovered rather than coming off as some kind of tired nostalgia act by a tired ensemble that’s just going through the motions.

DC is a city that’s never lacked for soul in its music. Most of the time it’s something lies concealed beneath the surface, only occasionally an overt presence. But the Rubens are a reminder that soul—the spirit of Motown—still exists in rock. Getting back to these roots in DC, through the efforts of an Australian four-piece band that never experienced this music first-hand, was a fresh, memorable, and enjoyable experience if only for a single night.


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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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