Back in 2009, Adam Granduciel and his band, a crew called The War on Drugs, performed at the Illini Union with the Hold Steady. The Hold Steady was cruising after the release of their acclaimed Stay Positive was released the year prior. I wasn't at the show. I was probably holed up studying for something that, looking back, doesn't matter much. The War on Drugs opened for Craig Finn & company at the Illini Union's Courtyard Cafe. This was before their 2011 record Slave Ambient was released, which seems like an unlikely entry into the hearts of plenty of listeners around the world.
Fast forward to 2017, where as recent as October, that same opening band, still called The War on Drugs, performed at the Aragon in Chicago. Granduciel has been making music for a long time, and the last few years have been a direct upwards trajectory for the band he made.
That venue holds 5,000 people. The War on Drugs headlined that show. Time is such an interesting marinating mechanism.
Much like their music, the War on Drugs' career has been a slow build to what it has become today: a band that is quietly becoming a headliner at major festivals. Just the same band that performed on that tiny stage near Wright Street years ago. The same act that Kurt Vile used to be in, both from Philly. The same act that, a few years later, would have a weird beef with curmudgeon Mark Kozelek, aka Sun Kil Moon.
The War on Drugs is performing in Bloomington tomorrow night, at a venue that deserves some attention from all of us over here in Champaign-Urbana: The Castle Theatre. This particular show sold out nearly three weeks in advance. Sure, this isn't an Aragon Ballroom, but this is an indie rock show we're talking about here — a genre, which, you know, isn't entirely burning out, but definitely hasn't been as strong in this market in recent years. 800 tickets burned through, it seems. It isn't as big as a room like Canopy Club, but they'd get to 1,000 tickets over there if the fire marshall would allow it.
Certainly, Bloomington-Normal is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. With the Castle appearing to be doing well (from my vantage point, at least), and the other spots like nightshop popping up, our neighbors deserve some of our attention.
Yes, Champaign-Urbana, the home to some of the most influential indie rock bands of the last three decades. HUM, American Football, and Braid, to name a trio. We should give credit where credit is due. Bloomington has its own history too, of course. I'm just happy to see it doing so well.
In just the last year or so, The Castle has gathered acts like Jenny Lewis, The New Pornographers, Portugal. The Man, The Mountain Goats, Whitney, Justin Townes Earle, Dawes and in 2018, Neko Case, Twin Peaks, Pokey LaFarge, and dozens of other acts. Sure, money can buy any band's time, but indie rock seems quite alive over there. Champaign-Urbana is certainly capable of the same, it has done as much and more in the past, but damn that is solid.
The War on Drugs join that discussion with these listed above — acts that have been coming through to a smaller-market play — you know, here in the Heartland.
This year, the band released their again-critically-acclaimed new record, A Deeper Understanding, which is their major-label debut on Atlantic Records. The previous releases were on Secretly Candian — in further-away-neighbor Bloomington, Indiana, and a very good label — Lost in the Dream and Slave Ambient. All three terrific in their own ways.
The growth of an act like the War on Drugs has been such an interesting ride. Granduciel, a self-proclaimed introvert, now performs now in front of thousands regularly, touring the world over. And we're not just talking about performing at festivals, they are selling a major amount of tickets in major markets, club shows showcase the true value to an act moreso than being billed at a festival.
These guys will be in the same breath as Wilco and The National before we know it, just watch. For whatever it's worth: A Deeper Understanding is nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album this time around.
Early comparisons were to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band or Jackson Browne, which aren't too far off, especially with a gem like "Baby Missles" from Slave Ambient, their second and breakthrough record:
Those synths are joined by the drugged-out jams like "It's Your Destiny" that really shaped the sound of that record, a much cleaner appearance than Wagonwheel Blues, the band's debut:
Slave Ambient made some small waves, but nothing insane — they had a following, one that was going to build and build if they kept putting out good songs. They did, indeed, especially when Lost in the Dream came ou in 2011, and you're met immediately with perhaps the best track they've ever done, "Under the Pressure":
The very next song? "Red Eyes":
Whoosh. The album just keeps tumbling over you, cementing the War on Drugs as one of the best bands in Americana and indie rock in the new decade.
It is simple for me to write about how wonderful this band is, and although I don't think it does a disservice to my credibility when it comes to writing about them — you can decide the rest for yourself, and can disagree, but I don't think you will. A band that has built such a solid case each and every record showcases an amazing sustainability that seems all-but-normal in 2017 indie rock. A Deeper Understanding catapults them into another realm, only time will tell if they keep the same trajectory and quality of material.
I'll be journeying over to Bloomginton to enjoy this one on Friday night, and things like this make coverage from our point of view here in Champaign-Urbana easier, and as the Castle Theatre continues to push out awesome stuff like this, we'll be sure to keep listening.
The War on Drugs perform tomorrow, Friday, December 22nd, at the Castle Theatre in Bloomington with Lo Moon. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are sold out for this show.