Adam Granduciel is a slightly unassuming front man, but his songs are magical.
Adam Granduciel is a slightly unassuming front man, but his songs are magical.
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

The War On Drugs Entrances a Packed White Oak Crowd

The War On Drugs
White Oak Music Hall
September 29, 2017

The War On Drugs are having their moment. Over the course of two hours at an uncomfortably packed show at White Oak Music Hall, they tore through the expansive jam-filled rock that has come to define them. Led by singer/guitarist Adam Granduciel, the band could hardly be contained by the room they occupied as each song rang out to dizzying heights through an overwhelming display of craft. Not quite the breakthrough of a new band nor a victory lap taken by a group resting on their laurels, Friday night’s sold-out show was a showcase of one of the decade’s best rock bands proving exactly that.

The band has been active for more than a decade, and has made a far journey from their unassuming debut, Wagonwheel Blues, released all the way back in 2008 when Kurt Vile was still a full-time member. They reminded the crowd of that trek as they played the gentle “Buenos Aires Beach” from that record early in the set, then surprised with another deep cut by opening their encore with the rollicking folk of “Arms Like Boulders.”

Most of the crowd’s introduction to the band, however, came with the anxiety-ridden widescreen rock of 2014’s Lost In The Dream, the album that topped year-end lists and elevated the band to a higher level of prominence. While they stopped at House of Blues in September 2014 to tour that record, it was clear that the three years since have only increased its impact in terms of fans discovering it. The band could sense as much, playing six songs from the album through the night.

The War On Drugs plays the kind of bombastic rock that used to be heard at stadiums.
The War On Drugs plays the kind of bombastic rock that used to be heard at stadiums.
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

While they certainly gave the fans the songs they wanted to hear, as “Red Eyes” bowled over the room, they largely stuck to the blown-out massive rock of A Deeper Understanding, the phenomenal record they released last month. Unlike shows where the band apologetically gets through the new songs so they can appease with fan favorites, everyone was on the same page as the band went through almost the entirety of their new album.

After the success of Lost In The Dream, the band signed to Atlantic, and last month A Deeper Understanding debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard charts, indicating that they’re no longer a well-kept secret. While there’s been no lack of talented indie rock bands over the past decade, as music festivals pushed towards the mainstream where pop stars like Lorde headline alongside Modest Mouse or Jack White, the only rock bands post Vampire Weekend who could feasibly headline a festival has shrunk to a small list of Tame Impala, The 1975, and maybe a handful of others. Throughout the two hours they played, as each note lingered in the air, The War On Drugs proved why they deserve to be on that list.

The band sounded tight but never rushed, as each song had plenty of room to breathe usually as they got to the bridge. The soaring solo of new single “Strangest Thing” was an early peak, as the band locked into a groove and Granduciel’s riffs inspired awe. When they played singles “Pain” and “Holding On” early in the set, two of their most enveloping songs back to back, it just felt like showing off.

Granduciel expressed some fond memories of Fitzgerald's, where The War On Drugs played in 2012.
Granduciel expressed some fond memories of Fitzgerald's, where The War On Drugs played in 2012.
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

Granduciel is slightly unassuming as a front man. He’s quiet in between songs, and even when he’s belting out choruses or ripping into solos, everything is in service to the song. Watching him work felt like taking a time capsule, as he deftly switched between guitar solos and harmonica blasts, operating in a classic-rock framework that was familiar but never stifling. Far from off-putting, he was welcoming to the Houston crowd and even expressed a fondness for Fitzgerald’s, where the band last played in 2012. The focus is never solely on him, but on the interaction between all the band members, who were in top form throughout the night, especially the rousing saxophone of Jon Natchez. Another key player was Dave Hartley, the only other founding member still with the band besides Granduciel. His driving bass lines served as the backbone for the songs, grounding moments like “An Ocean In Between the Waves.”

The War On Drugs make the kind of bombastic rock that used to be played at stadiums. It was no surprise to find that Jimmy Iovine, the record producer who got his start in the late ‘70s by producing records with Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and U2, revealed his admiration of the band. While Granduciel may not have the personality or the hooks of any of those legends, he and his band know how to stretch a rock song to fill an expanse, how to look to the past without being stuck in it.

If there was any qualm about Friday night’s show, it’s the lingering idea that it could have been any better. The show was originally billed as taking place on the White Oak Lawn, the kind of setting that would have been perfect for the band, a wide stretch that could have let each note ring out over the night sky with the picturesque view of the Houston skyline as a backdrop. The band certainly put on the same type of show they would have outside, but with a little more room to breathe, it could have been an unforgettable experience. Still, it reminded me that I had first seen them play an early-afternoon set during SXSW, and the strides they’ve taken since then have been astounding to witness.

The War On Drugs' latest album, last month's A Deeper Understanding, debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200.
The War On Drugs' latest album, last month's A Deeper Understanding, debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200.
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

Personal Bias: While the throwback to Wagonwheel Blues was certainly welcome, it would have been nice to get at least one cut off of 2011’s Slave Ambient, the album that likely served as an introduction to a good portion of the crowd, or at least myself.

Overheard In the Crowd: Mostly a lot of noise, but I did get nearly knocked off my feet by some older guy barreling for the exit after the show ended.

The Crowd: A friend I went with noted that she had seen a crowd at an Eminem concert that was less aggressive than this one, and I had to agree. I’d never seen a sold-out show at the White Oak downstairs room before, but it was extremely packed, to the point where you couldn’t turn around without bumping into someone. The cramping seemed to agitate most who were already slightly buzzed or drunk, and as people tried to shove their way to and from the stage, their manners got progressively worse. Throw in the fact that Houston crowds love to talk over the band and the room at White Oak only amplifies the chatter, and it was hard to hear until the sound leveled out by the third song or so. It’s really a shame that it wasn’t a lawn show.

Random Notebook Dump: Let me complain about the crowd once more, to point out one of the most egregious displays of concert etiquette I’d ever seen. If you haven’t been to White Oak downstairs before, there’s a second-floor viewing deck with a staircase toward the back right of the room that provides easy access. Unfortunately, about 15 people thought that meant they could just plant themselves on the stairs to watch the show and make it impossible for others to travel up and down. A White Oak staff member forced them all off early on, but sure enough, people went back up. It’s amazing how often concertgoers act like they’ve never been out in public before at rock shows.

The band covered Warren Zevon's "Accidentally Like a Martyr" late in Friday's set.
The band covered Warren Zevon's "Accidentally Like a Martyr" late in Friday's set.
Photo by Violeta Alvarez

SET LIST
In Chains
Holding On
Pain
An Ocean in Between The Waves
Strangest Thing
Red Eyes
Knocked Down
Buenos Aires Beach
Eyes to the Wind
Burning
Accidentally Like a Martyr (Warren Zevon cover)
Nothing to Find
Up All Night
Under the Pressure
Clean Living

ENCORE
Arms Like Boulders
Lost In the Dream

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