The War on Drugs' Adam Raises Cain: Concert Review

Philadelphia dream-rockers triumph as guitarist Granduciel shreds, channeling Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and Mark Knopfler with revved-up punk intensity.

Philadelphia dream-rockers triumph as guitarist Granduciel shreds, channeling Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and Mark Knopfler with revved-up punk intensity.

There’s a not-so-new guitar slinger in town and his name is Adam Granduciel, the 35-year-old axe-wielding singer-songwriter and driving force behind Philadelphia band The War on Drugs, who have just released their third album, Lost in the Dream,  the follow-up to 2011’s well-received breakthrough, Slave Ambient, on the hip Secretly Canadian label (in addition to a pair of EPs).  The band was formed nine years ago by Granduciel with fellow Phily native Kurt Vile, the indie fuzz-rock icon who went on to form the Violators, which Adam joined briefly before returning to TWOD and forging ahead on his own.

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There was a palpable industry buzz in the venerable Troub as the band hit the stage for the second of two sold-out shows, Granduciel in a red T-shirt and torn blue jeans, hunched over his array of Strats, launching into the first song on the new album, the suitably claustrophobic “Under the Pressure,” a nod to the record’s obsession with a busted romance. And while the group is unapologetic about stretching out (their twitter handle is @warondrugsjams), Granduciel’s leads, which snake around the dual keyboards and the subliminally honking sax and muted trumpet, never lose sight of the songs, but embellish them. “Lying in a ditch/Pissing in the wind/Lying on my back/Loosening my grip/Wading in the water/Just trying not to crack,” he sings, the sound mushrooming, placing him (and us) in its protective cocoon. This is no soloist with back-up – Robbie Bennett’s keyboards add the melody lines, while the rhythm section of bassist David Hartley and drummer Charlie Hall never leave terra firma, despite Adam’s frequent extended forays into the cosmos. An extra keyboardist and horn player have been added for the tour.

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A molten lead marks the punk urgency of  “Baby Missiles,” while “I Was There” has a bluesy twang and sing-song rhythm goosed by a Granduciel harp solo.  One of the new disc’s centerpieces, “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” captures the epic psychedelic, art-pop swell of the group – offering a glimpse of Dylan if he dropped acid at the same time he went electric (well, didn’t he?), Dire Straits if Mark Knopfler shared leads with Bob Quine, and Television if Tom Verlaine and Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cipollina were fused at the hip with Wes Montgomery.

A slow, fluid groove to the soulful “Disappearing" features ambient gauze-like synths, accented with harp and trumpet, while “Eyes to the Wind” evokes Crazy Horse with sax and pedal steel flourishes to boot. There’s a loping country-rock feel to “Suffering,” as Granduciel wrenches out a solo and bleats, “Let me in,” before stopping for his first piece of banter. “How’s life in L.A.? Good?” he says laconically before defusing requests for “Touch of Grey,” the Dead song they’ve covered in concert before. There’s an avant-garde feel to “Best Night,” a song from Slave Ambient, as Adam’s guitar makes like a siren sweetly beckoning us to crash on the rocks. “Burning” ends with a riff straight out of “Sweet Jane,” while the title track from Lost in the Dream, with its pedal steel and ‘60s fervor (“Love’s the key to the things that you see…”), comes off like a rockin’ version of The Eagles.  “Come to the City” opens with a shimmering atmospheric intro before climaxing with a buzzsaw ending that cops a refrain from “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The set ends with a scintillating “In Reverse,” Granduciel on his knees, coaxing out a Prince-like primal yawp solo, evoking Led Zeppelin, “Heroin” and “Like a Rolling Stone” in one fell swoop.

For the encore, before popping the cork on a champagne bottle from the club for selling out two nights, the band launches into a soaring medley of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” and John Lennon’s “Mind Games,” offering a nod to the late Beatles’ lost weekend in L.A., culminating in this very venue, wearing a kotex on his head, heckling the Smothers Brothers with Nilsson and Peter Lawford, and getting escorted from the premises. By the time they finished with a stirring 1-2-3 punch of  “Arms Like Boulders” (sounding like a Blood on the Tracks outtake), “Black Water Falls” (the slow build evoking “St. Stephen”) and “Comin’ Through” (wits its funk dance beat), The War on Drugs had proven a lot more successful than its namesake, leaving us all high as kites, tripping on what we had just heard.

Set list:

Under the Pressure
Baby Missiles
I Was There
An Ocean in Between the Waves
I Hear You Calling
Eyes to the Wind
Best Night
Lost in the Dream
Come to the City
In Reverse

Without You
Mind Games
Arms Like Boulders
Black Water Falls
Comin’ Through

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