Show Review: The War on Drugs at the Independent

Originally published on October 31, 2011–S.F.-Review

The War on Drugs with Purling Hiss:: 10.23.11 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA


The War on Drugs by Annelise Poda

After reveling in a much-coveted weekend of San Francisco Indian summer weekend, fans of Americana -influenced rock gathered at The Independent to finish off their Sunday with a night of music from recently acclaimed band The War on Drugs. These Philadelphia-based musicians played an aurally uplifting set of songs that spanned the length of their career. Each composition melted into the next to create a rich sonic atmosphere that had the crowd freely swaying along to the progressive folk arrangements.

Purling Hiss, another group from Philly, warmed up the stage with some heavier music to start the evening. Songwriter Michael Polizze ground out continuous whammy-bar-infused guitar solos combined with grating vocals that built on the band’s distorted rock sound. Up until this summer, Polizze had never played Purling Hiss songs with a full band. It had always been a DIY solo project – he recorded all the instrument parts himself on a 4-track – making the three-piece Purling Hiss live show an exciting new development put together for touring.


Purling Hiss

Purling Hiss definitely lived up to its dissonant name. The band delivered a set of grinding psychedelic rock songs to the attentive audience, with Polizze rocking out up front in a t-shirt displaying a glaring wolf. This fashion statement, combined with a head of unkempt curly hair specifically cultivated for head banging, was the perfect visual embodiment of the band’s aggressively hypnotic music. The feel of their set shifted near the end, as they moved from harder songs to more melodic selections that incorporated multi-part vocal harmonies. This contrast was a great way to end the set, and the slower songs provided a good lead-in for the headliner.

During the set change, any empty pockets of space in the crowd filled in with an above average percentage of bearded fans clad in flannel shirts. Lots of attendees, even the beardless ones, were talking about which songs they were most excited to hear from the synth-blended catalogue of The War on Drugs. The band has been on nonstop tour-mode through Europe and the U.S. since the release of their highly praised album Slave Ambient (released August 16 on Secretly Canadian), which most people in the crowd were obviously familiar with. The band took the stage and played a few songs off their 2008 release Wagonwheel Blues, before getting into the more recent material that most of the crowd was eager to hear.


The War on Drugs by Annelise Poda

Seeing The War on Drugs live was a very engaging experience. When standing up close to the stage, it was impossible not to notice the band’s complete absorption in their playing, as you got pulled along and soon were lost in their instrumental layers. This was especially apparent when watching Robbie Bennett play piano and analog keyboard, as he would lean and dip into his notes, creating a foundation of smooth and textured sounds that the drums and bass built upon. The musicians played very tightly together, with most instruments devoted to building a strong and flowing rhythm.

In addition to the live percussion of Steven Urgo, some songs incorporated a faded background drum machine beat track, which I’ve not noticed before in bands of the genre. It was a really interesting effect to add into the mix, and worked very well live. The Bob Dylan-esque vocals of Adam Granducielstood out from the rhythmic stew, and he half-sang, half-talked lyrics while constantly strumming out varied electric guitar riffs. It was no surprise to anyone when he whipped out a harmonica to play on some of the band’s folk rock songs, furthering the Dylan comparisons. The band formed in 2005 partly around a shared love of Bob Dylan between Granduciel and former member Kurt Vile, and that specific musical influence is unmistakable.

The War on Drugs did a great job transitioning between songs, with Bennett often prolonging a synthesizer chord progression on his Omni keyboard until the other instruments started in again. There were very few words exchanged between the musicians and the audience, which allowed everyone to remain contentedly captive under the band’s spell and really enjoy their heartfelt music. It was a relaxing yet invigorating show, and the performance not only lived up to the hype behind their new album; it definitely surpassed it. The good vibes from crowd created a vibrant atmosphere that gave their songs added life. If the songs on Slave Ambient were the least bit appealing to you, I would definitely recommend checking out a live performance of The War on Drugs to experience their music in an even more fully-toned and beautiful way.


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