The War On Drugs Adds a Few Detours to a Well-Worn Path

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 9, 2011 4:20PM

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The War On Drugs at Lincoln Hall (Chicagoist/Kim Bellware)

It takes just a few songs by The War On Drugs for your brain to fall into "oh, the places you'll go!" mode. The wanderlust spirit of the Philadelphia-based band captures nearly every feeling of open road Americana grandeur, with one catch: everyone who's influenced the band (Petty, Dylan, Springsteen) has shown us that road already.

Still, after Wednesday's show at Lincoln Hall we ultimately figured, "So what?" Even if the band is highly derivative of those American legends, The War On Drugs succeeds in having enough originality to evade being pegged as ripoffs.

The warm and dreamy mood of their latest album, Slave Ambient was whisked from the live set and replaced with Mike Zangh's energizing, Krautrock-flavored "Apache beat" drums and a blistering, edgy saxophone. The guitars weren't as languid as had expected, either, though frontman Adam Granduciel indulged in more than a little jamming.

Opener "Best Night" set an early high-point packed with energy and screaming sax, while "Arms Like Boulders" from Wagonwheel Blues seemed to be the most fun the band had with any of the material that evening. The band's Grateful Dead cover of "Touch of Gray" was an unexpected choice that ended up fitting in perfectly with the set's blend of jammy, open instrumentals and rousing demi-anthems.

While the band's love for their favorite artists is so earnest it borders on homage, the effect was endearing rather than obnoxious. True, Granduciel's speaking-as-signing style during "Brothers" was such a fervent study of Dylan it recalled another Dylan-loving Philadelphian," it never felt dishonest or overdone.

During "Baby Missiles", the guitar and keys riffs were packed with energy right out of a Springsteen video; we half expected a pixie-haired fan to jump onstage and start shimmying with the band. It was nothing groundbreaking, for sure, but like all of The War On Drugs' songs, it was well-executed and plenty enjoyable. Later, the band broke off a bit more from their more typical sound and introduced prominent harmonica. That set the second half of the show on a more bluesy, improvisational course.

A few times when the sax got a little too blistering or when the jams seemed to loose structure, we found ourselves getting restless. But, Granduciel and company always found a way to reel our attention back in, thanks to their excellent dynamics. The band made a lot of obvious choices in following paths laid by their influences, but in other ways — the decision not to explode a drum fill or guitar riff into the finale the crowd expected, for instance — The War On Drugs kept us hanging on for the next note.