The War on Drugs’ Universality

Bandleader’s anachronistic familiarity fuels first of two shows

A Deeper Understanding is the War on Drugs’ slickest, most complex work yet, fueled by group constant Adam Granduciel’s perfectionism. Live at a sold-out Stubb’s Saturday for the first of two shows, the band erected a wall of guitars, keyboards, and motorik rhythms driving a mid-tempo machine of interlocking parts behind the bandleading guitarist.

Adam Granduciel (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Warranting a show add-on tonight, Sunday, the Philadelphia sixpiece fell in lockstep behind Granduciel, who could’ve passed for a Twin Peaks walk-on in his bright plaid flannel and unkempt mane. The relative scruff lent elegance to his controlled shredding. Through the two-hour set, he swiveled within the orbit of his grand pedalboard setup, a four-foot, semicircle radius, form where he unleashed his oft-disputed dad-rock-ism.

Alternating new songs with selections from War on Drugs’ previous release, 2014’s Lost in the Dream, the 38-year-old focal point only diverged into old territory mid-set, revisiting his Kurt Vile-partnered origins from Wagonwheel Blues. Acoustic guitar in hand, his rendition of “Buenos Aires Beach” stirred up the old roots amid a now-danceable beat. Granduciel remains just as gravel-y and thematically Americana with synths soaring and bass booming over the packed venue’s lengthy outdoor space.

After gingerly switching to harmonica for moments of “Eyes to the Wind,” Granduciel concluded the churning number with a power forefinger pointed toward the night sky, eliciting crowd cheers. Without a specific image reference, it felt like a very Eighties thing to do. The gesture stood out amid sparse stage banter.

The lead figure didn’t need water breaks or chatter throughout, but rather just the next guitar swap. His proficiency juggling a guitar and wireless control pad on upbeat “Up All Night,” wherein he maintained meticulous control over the techno-propelled track, proved impressive. Aside from quick instructional glances to his soundman, Granduciel kept his eyes closed during vocals and cast them down during instrumentals, his renowned intensity palpable.

The crowd fell in line immediately, necks buckling to a bob under the force of the rolling compositions. Wispy, windswept tales of dreams and landscapes lured Austin into the band’s trance. By the time the encore hit, War on Drugs’ template was set in stone: ambient-turned-heavier intro, echoing vocals, and instrumental breakdown – all of it with modest-at-best soloing from Granduciel. Live, at least, he keeps any guitar histrionics to a bare minimum.

All of it felt like warm-up to penultimate, 14-minute opus “Thinking of a Place.”

The War on Drugs’ expansive sound evokes open plains and troubadour-ism, imagery right at home for an Austin audience. The performance, at times cloaked in an otherworldly haze of synth, fog, and light beams, maintained a grounded familiarity. Granduciel’s creations transport to a place that’s hard to pin down on a timeline, but it most certainly engenders a grand universality.

Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheatre set list, 9.30.17:

“In Chains”
“Holding On”
“An Ocean in Between the Waves”
“Strangest Thing”
“Red Eyes”
“Knocked Down”
“Buenos Aires Beach”
“Eyes to the Wind”
“You Don’t Have to Go”
“Nothing to Find”
“Up All Night”
“Under the Pressure”
“Clean Living”

“Thinking of a Place”
“In Reverse”

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The War on Drugs, Adam Granduciel, Kurt Vile, Wagonwheel Blues, Twin Peaks

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