Watch The War on Drugs jam with Kurt Vile at Johnny Brenda’s

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The War on Drugs | Photo by John Vettese
The War on Drugs | Photo by John Vettese

I remember a time, not too long ago, when Philly space rock luminaries The War on Drugs could comfortably fit all their gear on the stage at Johnny Brenda’s with room to spare. But as their sound and scope has expanded, so has their spatial footprint, and I found myself at the foot of the Fishtown venue on Friday night, looking at the dozens of pedals cabled together and a veritable fortresses of keyboards, of amps and microphones and Charlie Hall’s drumkit tucked way back into the corner, wondering to myself how the heck this was going to work. Thankfully, the dudes pulled it off tremendously, and had enough room for founding member Kurt Vile to join the band for guitar shreddery on “Under the Pressure,” “Arms Like Boulders” and “I Hear You Calling.”

The semi-mysterious show had the Philly music community buzzing online late last week. On Thursday, Johnny Brenda’s and R5 tweeted a “special secret show” on the night of the 12th. Speculations started flying, ranging from the plausible (Dr. Dog) to the wishful-thinking-but-still-plausible (Interpol) to the utterly ridiculous (Foo Fighters, U2). Meanwhile, The War On Drugs tweeted a simple “#Deadgreg” later that morning, which was the codename they used last time they played a secret show (Boot and Saddle, on the eve of the release of Lost in the Dream). The next day, followed up with another clue – “#JeanineBreanna’s” – and lest there was any doubt remaining, R5 tied the threads together on Friday afternoon and posted that WOD was playing “somewhere” in Philly that night.

The line of fans that showed up stretched along Girard Avenue and up Shackamaxon, and though the room was quite full once we got upstairs, it still felt comfortable. The story was gradually relayed while waiting for the 9:30 set time – the band was about to head out on its latest tour and wanted to have fun with a kickoff show for their fans and friends in the hometown. One of these friends included founding member Vile, who lent some pointed psychedelic licks to the thunderous “Under the Pressure,” jammed along to the anthemic “Arms Like Boulders” and “I Hear You Calling,” and generally stood at stage left the rest of the night, leaning in to lend a hand when a pedal needed dialing in or an amp needed adjusting. (Cool to see him take the sound tech role with his buddies.)

Though it was a thrill seeing Vile and the Drugs play together again, the real high point was hearing how well Lost in the Dream translates live. I’m that one music journalist who isn’t doing backflips over this album – I’ve tried, I just can’t get into it and think these guys have done their thing much better in the past. But seeing and hearing Dream performed, especially so for such a devout room of fans who alternated between intense rock-out phases and drifting eyes-closed sways, it made me appreciate it a bit more. “Red Eyes” sounded tight and massive; the guitar solos were unreal. The beautiful “Eyes to the Wind” conjured up shivers across the room; even “Suffering,” which to me sounds way too understated on record, came across lovely to say the least.

The band’s gears are nicely primed for an impressive fall tour – one that’ll take them to stages where there all their gear will be a much easier fit. Check out photos from the show in the gallery below, and watch video of some of the performances via local videographer Joe Burns (aka Pilgrms Progress).

Setlist
Burning
Comin’ Through
Eyes to the Wind
Under the Pressure
In Reverse
Ocean
Arms Like Boulders
I Hear You Calling
Red Eyes
Suffering
Baby Missles
Lost in the Dream

Encore:
Brothers
Best Night

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