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Wednesday, 31 August 2011 12:24

Concert review: The War on Drugs (with Caveman) hook indie rock fans at the Billiken Club, Tuesday, August 30

Concert review: The War on Drugs (with Caveman) hook indie rock fans at the Billiken Club, Tuesday, August 30
Written by Kenji Yoshinobu
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The Billiken Club at St. Louis University is an intimate and inexpensive (as in free admission) way to enjoy some of the more buzzed-about bands in indie music. On Tuesday night the student-run music venue hosted Philadelphia's the War On Drugs and Brooklyn's Caveman, the first show of its fall lineup.

While I thought Caveman might be some ironic hipster dude with a laptop, it turned out the opening band was a drone-rocking five-piece. Caveman's entire set -- new songs from their debut album "Coco Beware" -- existed under a soft blanket of shoegazey distortion that was punctured by two percussionists, one being lead vocalist, Matthew Iwanusa, sharing the duties on the drum kit. It was impressive to see how the two drummers transformed sluggish, beautiful noise into a strange indie rock tribal gathering as Iwanusa tried to sing in time.

I later heard from members of the band that their drummer was sick and they were forced to split drumming duties between an old friend kind enough to fill in and Iwanasa. For performance purposes this tactic of tom, snare, and cymbal rationing worked well during the jams when the guitar and keyboards rose in the mix, but the drumming seemed to distract from and drown out a lot of the melody within the songs, especially Iwanusa's softer croon. After listening to the band's music on Myspace, songs like "Decide" and "Old Friend" sound much better served by a single drummer. Get well soon, drummer for Caveman!

The War On Drugs' new album, "Slave Ambient" is a masterpiece and I was excited to see it performed, as I'd read that front man, Adam Granduciel, had worked tirelessly for three years to craft every song. The songs on "Slave Ambient" all have an Americana backbone, with Granduciel's signature distorted guitar murmurs, but are sonically bolstered by glossy synthesizers. The combination of triumphant heartland rock and buzzing shoegaze -- with a little new wave for nostalgic purposes -- makes "Slave Ambient" sound like Day 1 (or even the last day) of a road trip across the U.S.A.

Performing all this fresh and calculated material seemed like a breeze for Granduciel and his three backing members. The singer is known for having stage fright, but he was able to execute his front man duties without any flaws. Although he played most of the set with his eyes closed, his presence as a vocalist and lead guitarist was captivating. Whenever Granduciel stepped to the mic to sing, his voice, reminiscent of Dylan, penetrated the entire room, despite the babble of atmosphere created by all the stomp pedal effects rigged up to his guitar. The band high tailed it through "Slave Ambient" standouts "Come To The City" and "Your Love Is Calling My Name"; both had marching qualities to them with varying tempos. Often the War On Drugs smoothly wove songs together and created ambient noise before launching into new selections. They only paused a few times to acknowledge the audience, and I didn't realize how big the crowd was at the Billiken until Granduciel asked, "What is a Billiken?" No one seemed to really know, but a "hybrid dwarf/vampire" was the answer that got the most positive reaction from the crowd.

After a fan delivered Granduciel a beer, the band played several of their fan favorites from their debut album, "Wagonwheel Blues." "Buenos Aires Beach" and "Show Me The Coast" were shuffling energizers for the crowd amidst many other requests for "Taking the Farm" and "Arms Like Boulders." For fans, Granduciel and his catalog of songs are treasured gifts; but as gracious as he was, he seemed very intent on presenting new material.

Perhaps the most interesting track lyrically off "Slave Ambient" is "Brothers," which is a melancholy salute to Granduciel's friends -- notably former War on Drugs member and fellow up-and-coming songwriter, Kurt Vile. Granduciel's voice sounded the most affected and frail when he sang, "Wondering where my friends are going, wondering why they didn't take me." It was one of the few moments during the night that Granduciel moved with the music, stumbling back with his head down to paw at his guitar. The band closed with "Baby Missiles." I never thought I'd say this about TWOD, but their music can be very danceable in a "Footloose" kind of way, as confirmed by some undefinable dance moves in the front row.

Granduciel looked bewildered as he opened his eyes to the praise the audience gave him. I watched as a few fans, who had grabbed some of the Billiken Club's promotional posters for the show, flocked to the band to get Granduciel's autograph. It was something that I don't see enough at shows these days, with the influx of indie bands and a music culture becoming increasingly impervious to good performances. But the War On Drugs' music is something that commands an impassioned response from listeners. The Billiken's smaller venue size was a perfect setting for the band to give patrons a taste of the triumphs on "Slave Ambient."

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