Best Night: The War on Drugs go deep at Johnny Brenda’s

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The War on Drugs | photo by John Vettese

Truly the best time to see your favorite band is the end of a tour cycle. They are locked in, the proverbial well-oiled machine, and they’ve traveled enough distance from their latest release that you’re more likely to hear those old favorites and deep cuts that you’ll never hear at the beginning of a run.

And so it went with opening night of The War on Drugs‘ three-show hometown residency, A Drug-Cember To Remember, which played to a packed house at Johnny Brenda’s last night.

A year and a half on the road in support of their Grammy-award winning A Deeper Understanding has done wonders for the Philly psych-rock band’s live set, which rides dynamic ebbs and flows, ruminating in the downbeat introspection of “Strangest Thing” and “In Reverse,” but breaking through the stratosphere on “An Ocean In Between The Waves” and “Under The Pressure.” The band is also using this pre-holiday run of shows to go deep on their catalog; while their Dell Music Center album release show focused entirely on Understanding and its predecessor Lost in the Dream, with only one throwback (the amazing “Arms Like Boulders”), and their XPoNential set was more mixed but leaning towards the present, their JBs gig highlighted at least two songs from each of their records, dusting off beloved but less-performed jams like “Buenos Aires Beach” from their debut Wagonwheel Blues and “Best Night” from Slave Ambient.

The War on Drugs | photo by John Vettese

The band had surprises up their sleeve, as well, breaking out a pitch-perfect rendition of John Lennon’s “Mind Games” towards the end of their encore-free, two-hour set, and opening it up with a guest appearance from locally-rooted comedian Tim Heidecker — who is the MC for this run of concerts — who joined the band on harmonica for a rousing opening performance of “Boulders.”

The War on Drugs and Tim Heidecker | photo by John Vettese

It’s funny to think: not too long ago, “The War on Drugs plays to 200 people at Johnny Brenda’s” would have been a major headline for a completely different reason. The band played the venue’s opening night on September 13, 2006, where they were the first of a four-artist, all-Philly bill — Bardo Pond headlined, with the late guitarist Jack Rose and singer-songwriter Meg Baird also providing support. As the Philadelphia Weekly‘s Eric Bader wrote at the time, “the place positively crackles with electricity as opener the War on Drugs hit the stage with shimmering Velvets-fuzz jangle-pop.” That still holds true today, but add on to the Velvets a dose of Pink Floyd, the Dead, and a refined and singular sound all their own that The War on Drugs has spent the past decade-plus crafting to perfection.

Below, watch videos of the “Mind Games” cover, as well as the show in its entirety — the Heidecker harmonica jam kicks things off right at the top — care of YouTube videographer Markit Aneight. A Drug-Cember to Remember continues tonight with a sold-out Union Transfer show, and concludes Friday with a Tower Theater gig that tickets are still available for. More information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.


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Setlist
Boulders
Baby Missiles
Pain
An Ocean In Between The Waves
Strangest Thing
Buenos Aires Beach
Best Night
Eyes to the Wind
Red Eyes
In Reverse
Under the Pressure
Brothers
Mind Games
You Don’t Have to Go

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