The crowd at most rock shows sits or stands in a monolithic block. The decision to sit or stand is made with wordless consensus, a predictable and reproducible computation that comes from triangulating the median age of the audience, the tempo of the music and the richness of the room.
So perhaps there's something telling about how many elbow tugs, death glares and rogue standers there were at the War On Drugs show at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Oct. 11. Adam Granduciel's Philly-based band are the current standard-bearers of guitar-driven rock, and thus draw an audience so broad it includes both people who saw Dire Straits at the Civic Auditorium and kids who were rolling on molly at the Lil Yachty show last month.
"It's Bruce Springsteen, but nothing's at stake," said the friend I brought. He's right—this is classic jammy, psych-tinged, Mid-Atlantic bar rock, but made by a graduate of America's oldest prep school, Boston's Roxbury Latin, who now lives in Philly's hyper-gentrified Fishtown neighborhood. The War world is a place, where the factory's been rusting for 20 years, and the kids of the former workers have splintered into junkies, Trump voters and content marketers who are "addicted" to matcha.
Granduciel is, however, a talented songwriter and a master of tone—his records are great, even if they don't quite resonate the way music with an agenda does. Onstage, Granduciel deployed a massive amount of gear, including a dozen guitars outfitted with capos to match the pitch of his riffs to his subdued vocals. And yet the lack of stakes gives the music a certain hollowness, a quality transcended only at the pinnacle of the show, "Under The Pressure," when the band coalesced and Granduciel delivered his best and truest lyrics. "You were raised on a promise," he says, in a line I've always figured was aimed directly at Tom Petty's "American Girl," "found that over time, better come around to the new way, or watch as it all breaks down here."
It's the one time Granduciel leans into the inherent tension between neoliberalism and nostalgia, and it's the closest he comes to the estrangement that makes Springsteen an icon.
All photos by Henry Cromett.