Live Review: The War on Drugs, Caveman at Chicago’s Schubas (8/27)

There should be challenges for bands on the rise or prerequisite trials. Because look, some bands walk an easy path to recognition, while others, it seems, have to blaze through the fires of Mordor before any modicum of success is bestowed upon them. Caveman aren’t exactly in the throes of misfortune, but with their drummer out of commission for the rest of their tour, there are definitely audibles being called here and there. Instead of a guitar strapped around his neck, lead singer Matthew Iwanusa stood at the front of the stage with a snare and a tom, and an auxiliary member sat to the rear of the stage and grooved on a couple more toms.

The new setup, however strange it must be for the band, totally worked. Caveman shifted between lolling atmospheric ditties and galloping tom-heavy compositions, with every band member contributing innumerable amounts of dreamy ideas to every song. Lush and ripe lines of folksy psych blended into walls of four-part vocal harmonies that created that kind of body movement that’s more horizontal than vertical; the back of my head was constantly looking for my shoulders during their set. (It’s like if Daniel Lanois produced The Dodos.) The song “December 28th”, from their forthcoming LP, CoCo Beware, focused Caveman’s sound and offered a fine respite from constantly complete, constantly flowing, constantly busy sound. Taking a peek above the swirling haze like this would definitely add credence to the mood they’re going for and perhaps get some heads going up and down in addition to side to side. But hey, they’re down a man, so you never know what a hi-hat and a kick drum will do when they are reinstated.

Surges of loud, reverberating textures were the theme of this party at Schubas, which is too bad because both of these bands’ sounds are just too big for this place, and optimal dimensions of each band shrank into a too-narrow spectrum of noise and overtones. Notwithstanding, The War on Drugs cranked up the vibe-dial and picked up where Caveman left off and through the haze and gaze, Adam Granduciel’s voice became distant focus. “He sounds like Dylan/Petty/Springsteen/Young,” someone surely must have said. I never could get behind that, because every time Granduciel’s voice was spotlit, a wave of noise would knock me off my feet. So, I think it’s impossible to draw comparisons like this, because The War on Drugs have buried that identity deep under layers of swelling dynamics and the constant hum of synths, loops, processors, and effects.

But that’s the allure of this band. It’s like looking in a foggy rear-view mirror and seeing the godfathers of heartland rock: ghosts of the past on stage that only hint at what was once there and keep you focused on what’s happening in the here and now, lyrics that stretch on for days running alongside Americana/pysch guitar shored up by hale bass and hearty drum work. It’s so damn dense, like when Granduciel really opens up his guitar and a trumpet and sax drone for an extended interpretation of “The Animator”. It’s so damn simple, like when Granduciel lets the lazy lyrics of “I Was There” just a-tumble out of his mouth.

The set enveloped years of American songwriting and crashed into every nook and cranny of Schubas. Even though he’s got the ripped jeans of 90’s Vedder, the hair of 70’s Young, and the laconic stage presence of every detached frontman since forever, Granduciel led The War on Drugs in a performance more akin to The Jesus and Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine than those pillars of American music, or so the ringing in my ears seemed to imply. The band seem to balance every aspect of their aesthetic so perfectly; it’s no wonder they get their own genre ascribed to them: Bossgaze. I didn’t coin it, but I’m so on board with making it stick.


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