The War On Drugs
Live @ Bowery Ballroom
In August of 2011, Philadelphia’s The War On Drugs were in New York touring in support of their first album in over four years, the finally finished Slave Ambient. Back then, they were a scrappy band from neither Brooklyn nor from California that somehow made music unrelated to ‘90s nostalgia. The album, pulling from tried and true classic rock influences like Springsteen and Dylan, and coupled with frontman Adam Granduciel’s fastidious layering of atmospheric guitar lines, made for a product (dear lord, forgive that term) that was decidedly anti-zeitgeist.
And yet, to those who listened, it quickly became apparent that fitting the band into a scene on the 2011 music timeline would be a stupid pursuit. Slave Ambient was, and remains, one of the most refreshing, well-crafted, and yes, escapist albums of the year, and maybe the perfect foil to the bullshit that’s too often served with indie rock “acquired-tastes.” The sold-out show at Bowery Ballroom would have been a feat for any band, but was especially feel-good for one who had somehow become popular without harboring a calculated kind of mystery or megalomania.
The War On Drugs’ third to last set of the year stayed faithful to Slave Ambient and their previous, perhaps poppier Wagonwheel Blues. Granduciel, who played most of the songs with his face hidden behind his hair, sang-talked his way over constant strumming, embellished noodling and distortion, while his bandmates (Dave Hartley on bass, Robbie Bennett on keys and guitar, Steven Urgo on the drums and the new addition of a saxophonist) alternately brought up the pace up to crazed, buzzy highs and down to twitchy, ambient lulls. The band proved themselves masters of room temperature in the sense that even with a song like “Your Love is Calling My Name,” which really only relies on two chords, the five guys on stage could still whip up the audience into a frenzy that elicited shrieks, yelps and howls at the right sort of climax/plateau. The rocky, straightforward “Arms Like Boulders” got a similar response, as did “Come to the City.”
Other random details that somehow made the night: Many of the songs were dedicated to friends, but one of them was dedicated to Granduciel’s dad, who was in the audience; Bennett bears a striking resemblance in appearance and demeanor to Jesus Christ, if the Savior ever appeared on Miami Vice; an impromptu bar was set up next to Hartley, which provided him with all the options of bottled water, beer and a bottle of bourbon (or whiskey, I can’t tell); and, by the end of the night, a drunk photographer was dancing with an arm around an already-dancing drunk woman in the front row. (Let it be noted: These are all indicators of a feel-good show). But maybe the best gesture from the band was their exit. The War On Drugs ended their set with an ascent to noise-fueled destruction. Granduciel and Hartley first played directly to the amps, then just let their instruments swing in front of them like pendulum weights. Eventually the two rested guitar and bass directly on the amps, creating an entropic mess of violently looping feedback. And with that, the Drugs quickly went offstage, leaving the room and audience still in the throes of their sonic ruin. No encore, no nothing. The house lights came up, the playlist turned on, and that was that.