Philadelphia rock missionaries The War on Drugs are all about dichotomies: pretty vs ugly, new vs old, subtlety rubbed up against grandeur, the home or the freeway, man vs The Man. It's an infinite-sum game they play, as they showed last night to a curious crowd at the Independent, jamming their way to abstract conclusions and somehow turning a Sunday night into a Friday night.
Each conflict was debated profoundly by leading man and former Oaklander Adam Granduciel, his eyes closed from start to finish, as if to channel the populist rock legends he's so often compared to: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen being the most obvious. His voice has the same nasal indifference and low-falutin' charm as Dylan and the stubborn disregard of Petty, and his band kicks up the same dirt as that young, urgent Boss once did.
While Granduciel did his beat-vocalist thing, Dave Hartley's bass, Steven Urgo's drums (and an occasional drum machine loop) and Robbie Bennett's keys bubbled up glacially to the surface, inevitably expanding their sound into jangly, ethereal jams. Granduciel's guitar occasionally stole the show when it wasn't hushed, as it was on the first few songs of the set. They began with "Arms Like Boulders," its fuzzy ambience bisected by quick, downward drum fills, and one of the few tracks from their maverick 2008 album Wagonwheel Blues.
Their most recent album, Slave Ambient, was paid due diligence. "I Was There" is a lazy Saturday afternoon of a melody steadfastly marching on and on before an extended, artful outro. Another from Slave Ambient was a personal highlight–the relatively uptempo "Your Love is Calling My Name," a subtley anthemic blast that seemed to raise the stakes for the crowd, which started to dance and holler and whoooooo!
Yes, you can freely raise your fists to this music. "Come to the City" and the especially Springsteenian "Baby Missiles" were similarly rambunctious and meaningful, with Granduciel singing like he can barely stand it all, and Urgo wacking the snare with a snarl.
Things got interactive on "Brothers" when the band invited a random audience member, a mustachioed über-hipster named Thomas, onstage to play a few acoustic guitar chords. Thomas acquitted himself quite well under the limelight while Hartley slid up and down his bass unpredictably.
There was no encore, but there was no encore necessary. Half of these songs could have sent us out into the night, hearts ablaze, minds atune and souls adrift.