The War on Drugs have become one of Philadelphia’s most popular exports.
The Adam Granduciel-led rock band began 2018 by learning that it had won a well-deserved best rock album Grammy for last year’s A Deeper Understanding. This month, the band completed a European tour by headlining the O2 arena in London, the English capital’s equivalent of the Wells Fargo Center.
That’s what made Wednesday night so special. Despite their outsize success, there the six-piece band was, back at Johnny Brenda’s, the Fishtown club that they first played on the venue’s opening weekend in 2006 and where they were last seen in September 2014, in a room that was too small for them, even then. At the start of the A Deeper Understanding tour 15 months ago, the Drugs played the 6,000-seat Dell Music Center in Strawberry Mansion.
“We’re so lucky to have a place like this to perform,” Granduciel said Wednesday before reaching back for “Buenos Aires Beach,” from the band’s 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues. He stood on the tiny stage with little room to move for all the guitar-effects foot pedals surrounding his feet. “We’ve been coming here a long time.”
The songwriter might have felt fortunate to be back in the cocoon of his home base, but those truly in luck were the 250 or so concertgoers who had literally won a lottery for the right to buy tickets to get in. They were rewarded not only with a terrific two-hour set by one of the world’s best rock bands in road-tested end-of-the-tour form, but also the kind of comfortable concertgoing experience that’s made Johnny Brenda’s such an exemplary place to see a show.
Remarkably, considering the demand, Wednesday’s first of an intended annual three-date run in the band’s hometown — billed as a ‘Drug-Cember to Remember’ — didn’t feel the least bit oversold. Elbow room was available, even in such cozy confines. And as the mini-tour moves on, the Drugs are playing progressively larger venues: another sold-out show at the midsize Union Transfer Thursday, followed by a final date at the 3,000 capacity Tower Theatre in Upper Darby on Friday, for which tickets are still available.
All three shows partially benefit The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, and more monies are being generated by an auction of choice items: an all-inclusive vacation, a Fender Stratocaster signed by the band, an Allen Iverson poster autographed by The Answer himself. (Details at warondrugs.net/drugcember.)
Opening night kicked off with “Arms Like Boulders,” with comedian and emcee Tim Heidecker sitting in on harmonica. (Heidecker will open the Union Transfer show, playing music with Dash Lewis and Jeff Ziegler. Frances Quinlan of Hop Along is the support act at the Tower.)
At JB’s, the band’s textured sound, which weaves classic American rock influences with the onward-pushing forward momentum of German motorik bands like Kraftwerk and Neu, shimmered and shook.
At the Dell last fall, the mix made the Drugs come across like a keyboard band, with pianist Robbie Bennett and organ player Jon Natchez prominently heard in the Strawberry Mansion night.
In Fishtown on Wednesday, those instruments were clearly present in the band’s meticulously layered attack. But Granduciel’s arsenal of tactically employed six-string sounds — making his instrument weep at the tail end of “In Reverse,” or jolting “Baby Missiles” into the stratosphere — served as a reminder that while excessive soloing is thankfully not their thing, The War on Drugs are a formidable, one-of-a-kind guitar band.
The show had a casual, hometown charm. Granduciel introduced Bennett with, “He used to be Fishtown guy. Now he’s a Jersey guy. You used to see him at Cheu [the Frankford Avenue noodle restaurant]. Now you’ll find him at Wegmans.” Before one song, the front man made a last-minute decision to switch from acoustic to electric guitar, then self-deprecatingly mocked himself, quipping to the audience: “Like it matters.”
But of course, in War on Drugs songs, sonic details do matter, a lot. “An Ocean in Between the Waves” and “Eyes to the Wind” ebbed and flowed with a finely calibrated precision that it felt like a privilege to witness up close. The best Granduciel songs feel like a journey unto themselves, a quest to “find what can’t be found” as he puts it in “Pain.”
The show peaked in a final stretch in which “Red Eyes” shifted seamlessly into “In Reverse” and then an absolutely magisterial “Under The Pressure,” as tightly coiled as a song about panic attacks should be before resolving itself in a cathartic release.
And that was followed shortly thereafter by a surprise: A cover of John Lennon’s 1973 solo hit “Mind Games,” in which Granduciel sang, “Yes is the answer, and you know that for sure.” If the question was, ‘Has this been a great rock show that hopefully is the start of many memorable Drug-Cembers to Remember?’, that was the correct response.