Concert review: The War on Drugs at The Ritz Ybor

A look back at the Mon., June 15 concert in Ybor City


I've always maintained you have to be in the right head space for certain bands to really grab you. Maybe the music never quite hit your ears right, or remained a lingering presence at your periphery that everyone else seemed to dig but you just couldn't get into. But maybe one day, you're caught unawares in a perfect storm of moodiness and susceptibility, and you hear just the right song, and it stops you in your tracks, and maybe, just maybe, that band claims a hold on your heart.

Thus, my relationship with The War on Drugs. A good friend hipped me to 2011 breakout Slave Ambient, but I only listened to it once before writing it off as not for me. Most recent LP Lost in the Dream sat in my iTunes virtually unplayed — a knee-jerk download inspired by my like of "Red Eyes" that was knee-jerk deleted during a hard drive cleansing. 'Course, I fished it out later, when I was writing an advance of the Philly outfit's stop in Ybor City, and was reminded why I acquired the album in the first place. I played Lost in the Dream on repeat in the weeks leading up to the show, slowly falling in love with the band's classy take on rock n' roll, colored in Americana heartland hues with a blush of shoegaze, New Wave and psychedelia, carried on urgent chugging or driving or meandering rhythms, textured with synth atmospherics and sublimely understated horns, imbued with sentiment and nostalgia. 

I'll be the first to admit that Adam Granduciel's voice and as an extension, his band's sound, is an amalgam of rootsy influences that are hard not to hear — Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler, even a little Paul Simon and early Rod Stewart — but these same influences are what spurred my love in the first place, and likely that of the hundreds of fans who filtered into The Ritz to see The War on Drugs this past Monday night despite a decisive Stanley Cup final playing on screens all over town. And the derivative synthesis works, while at the same time remaining original enough to stand on its own merits.

The War on Drugs arrived in town fresh from Bonnaroo, Granduciel sporting long scraggly hair and worn chambray shirt with partially rolled-up sleeves as he, bassist David Hartley, keysman Robbie Bennett, drummer Charlie Hall, horn juggler Jon Natchez and guitarist Anthony LaMarca filtered onto a stage bathed in saturated lights illuminating a subtle geometric backdrop, and kicked off with the galloping rock fire of "Burning" off Lost in the Dream. The rest of the 90-minute set was heavy on Dream material, but also touched on Slave Ambient, 2010's Future Weather EP, and 2008 debut full-length Wagonwheel Blues. I didn't recognize as much as I expected, but the sound was so pristine from where I stood and the transcendent moments plentiful enough that I didn't mind. Nor, it seemed, did anyone else, though it was the cuts off Dream that earned the most enthusiastic responses and proved the night's highlights, especially the one-two punch of "Disappearing" into "Red Eyes"; the '80s soft rock ambiance, wandering keyboard melodies and fretless bass tones of the former segued nicely into the latter's wistful up-tempo catchiness, whooping vocals and rising wash of synths, guitars and bari sax. They ended on an Ambient note, "Come to the City," and opened the three-song encore with another track off that album, the lovely breezy "Best Night." 

I'm normally of the opinion that down-tempo material should be situated in the middle of a set, so it felt like a misfire when The War in Drugs brought a rather stellar and spirited show to a close with the slowest cut off Dream, "Suffering." Why end on a sluggish note when you can go out with a bang?, I thought to myself, but they made it work, filling the room with sublimely textured instrumentals that drifted and glided to a most lovely conclusion.

The Everymen opened the evening with loud and effusive ska-and-Jersey-sound horns-infused rock n' roll propelled by the dramatic howls of Catherine Herrick and co-leader Mike V.'s shreddy, showy guitar solos of the sort that'd make Eddie Van Halen proud. Overall, they proved a good if rather baffling warm-up choice. 

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