Live: The War on Drugs at the Satellite
If it’s true that there are scant new roads to travel in the worn-out realm of guitar rock (and it’s true), that doesn’t mean there aren’t still fascinating vistas out there to discover. All you have to do is spin around a few times ’til you’re dizzy, wander a few steps off the highway and then take it all in.
The War on Drugs does this, figuratively speaking. The Philadelphia band, which released its buzzing, acclaimed first album, “Wagonwheel Blues,” in 2008 and whose accomplished second, “Slave Ambient” (after a couple of EPs), came out in August, didn’t cause a revolution at the Satellite in Silver Lake on Saturday night, didn’t transform rock and/or roll with innovation, didn’t rewrite any rules. But by deftly, smartly combining bits and pieces of the past four decades of electric guitar music and mixing it with a sturdy, rolling thunder rhythm that pushed songs forward with ridiculous amounts of momentum, the War on Drugs created a magical wormhole out of electricity, muscle and faded blue jeans.
Led by guitarist-singer Adam Granduciel, whose tangled shoulder-length hair made him look time-traveled from 1975, the War on Drugs draws heavily on one particular locale on “Slave Ambient”: Big Pink, Bob Dylan and the Band’s mythical basement studio, where they sought refuge in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1967. You could hear it in Granduciel’s languorous, echoed moan on “I Was There,” that casually enunciated vocal style that suggests Dylan’s late-’60s inflections almost to a fault.
You could hear it in the harmonica lines, sad and lonely, and you could hear it in the way he traded guitar melodies with electric pianist Robbie Bennett like Robbie Robertson used to with Garth Hudson. Bennett’s keyboard and guitar work on Saturday night expanded the band’s sound much further than those same lines on record.
Within that classic Americana template the four-piece, whose first incarnation featured rising guitarist/singer Kurt Vile before he left to go solo, created space that they filled with hum, hiss and drone, offshoot melodic paths and Dave Hartley’s confident, efficient bass lines. Structures were built that the musicians then roamed through.
The War on Drugs’ constructs, though, are more linear in nature, mostly thanks to percussionist Steven Ergo, who collaborated with a metronomic drum machine on many of the songs to create efficient patterns. The band’s secret weapon is the so-called motorik rhythm — a thump-thump-snare beat that bands as diverse as Queens of the Stone Age, Velvet Underground and Kraftwerk have harnessed over the years. Coupled with the relatively relaxed feel of Granduciel’s voice, this white-line-highway percussive repetition drove songs like “Your Love Is Calling My Name” and “A Needle in Your Eye #16” with graceful assurance.
On the latter song, which lasts only five minutes on “Wagonwheel Blues,” the band pushed longer and harder. Steady and sure, as though they’d barely made a dent in the gas tank, the War on Drugs powered along before disappearing over the horizon. Somewhere, they’re probably still driving.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Adam Granduciel, (at mic) of the Philly band the War on Drugs, performs in a dimly lit show at the Satellite in Los Angeles. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times