Written by Joe Whitlock
Photos by Luke Armstrong
The first Neo-Rockabilly hipster could have been an anomaly. Five jean jackets later and I started to wonder what kind of show I was in for. There was a pint of W.L. Weller burning a hole in my back pocket, so I liberated the bottle and took a quick slug before crossing the threshold of the old Atlanta church turned music haven now called the Tabernacle. I was there to bear witness to The War on Drugs.
I was neither burned nor struck by lightning when I set foot in the building, which led me to believe that only the gods of rock occupied the space these days. The audacious brass pipes of an organ once dedicated to traditional hymns now served as a glorious backdrop for the revelry of less traditional hims, hers, and everyone in between. As I crept along the edges of the gathering crowd, I was relieved to see all types of humans in all types of attire. There was no need to scramble last minute for a Canadian Tuxedo. In between modest pulls on my whiskey bottle I overheard some chatter about the band. I was coming in fresh, having neither seen nor heard them and was eager to get an idea of what to expect. One tall beardy fellow was telling his less vertically endowed and clean shaven compatriot that when he first heard the War on Drugs they reminded him of Tom Petty. Interesting, I thought. Would I be hearing the stripped down, earthy Mudcrutch version, or the polished folk tinged rock of said man and the Heartbreakers? Of course, that was just the opinion of one tall bearded gentleman, so I tried to keep my mind free from preconception. However, never underestimate the enlightenment one can attain upon achieving full follicle fecundity in the facial field. An immediate decision to maintain my desire for a world that truly appreciates alliteration was briefly put on hold for one quick jaunt downstairs and outside for a cigarette and it was time to hear some tunes.
When the band walked on stage I made note of a couple of things. First, the bass player (David Hartley), keyboardist (Robbie Bennett) and the saxophone player all had keyboards. Second, the lead singer/guitarist (Adam Granduciel) reminded me of a skinnier Eddie Vedder complete with jean jacket. I immediately gave a pass to the five guys from earlier. When the music started up I felt a distinct Folk-Rock vibe that reminded me ever so slightly of Neil Young. The feeling only intensified as one of the songs began ambiently with rough and soulful lyrics, before morphing into a straight up rager that kicked my endorphins up a notch. It was at that moment, while leaning in from the outskirts of the mass of devotees, that I decidedly dug it. A subtle, but meaningful shift had occurred. The eight o’clock cynic was now a ten-thirty toe-tapper. A head bobber even. Venue Security reminded me to keep a clear walkway, but I was nonplussed. I was running down the dream. Going wherever it leads. Or led, rather.
Previous sentences and opinions of the bewhiskered aside, this wasn’t Tom Petty. It wasn’t attempting to be. This was The War on Drugs. Their lyrics made me feel gritty, reflective, and robust. Their music was rooted, then soaring, then unabashedly jammed out. All of these adjectives found their way into my brain box on the patio of The Tabernacle as I considered my love/hate relationship with well rolled tobacco and brightly lit ferris wheels. Adjectives were just more readily available out there. Inside the show there was less of a need to describe what was taking place. The music, and the crowd, and the proverbial vibe took care of that in the loudest, most audible unspoken way possible.
And when I had ceased to concern myself with “keeping a clear walkway,” or “Venue Security,” I took a final dram from my pint and realized why The War on Drugs whispered to us as Dylan, or Petty, or Young. They understood the sincerity it requires to do real roots music justice and the passion needed to rock that shit out. They spoke from the heart and played from the gut. At the end of the night, as the encore played behind me, I sauntered down the steps with two new realizations; I might secretly want a jean jacket, and Americana is a tangible thing and that band damn sure played it.