As soon as the show started, the audience descended into a subconscious trance of energy, in which the eyes of every showgoer, roadie and bartender were magnetically glued to the six guys onstage.
At the beginning of the show, Adam Granduciel’s guitar tech, a man he called “Dom,” placed an unopened bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water upon the stage near Granduciel’s feet among a myriad of guitar pedals that took up nearly half the standing room onstage. But as soon as the show started, the audience descended into a subconscious trance of energy, in which the eyes of every showgoer, roadie and bartender were magnetically glued to the six guys onstage.
As the band played its two-hour set at Johnny Brenda’s Wednesday night, there was no thinking. There was rocking, there was rolling, there was serenading, and there was feeling, but there was no thinking. And for Granduciel, there was certainly no time for hydration. The cap on that very bottle of unopened San Pellegrino was sealed just as tight when the band left the stage as it was when it first got there. Talk about building up a thirst.
The audience had built up a thirst as well. Back in October, the War on Drugs announced they’d be playing three end-of-the-year Philly shows at three different venues around the city to raise money for the School District of Philadelphia. It would be called “A Drugcember to Remember.” Anybody who wanted to go had to enter a lottery to have a chance. After tickets went on sale, the venues were announced. The last show would be held on Friday, Dec. 21, at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby. The day before, the band would grace the stage of Union Transfer. And the day before that, The War on Drugs — the most successful band to come out of Fishtown since gentrification began to take hold on the neighborhood — would grace the stage of Fishtown’s most famous venue, Johnny Brenda’s.
As opening act Martin Courtney graced the stage to start things off, showgoers realized the full gravity of one of the planet’s biggest rock bands headlining what was essentially a concert in a bar. The band’s ridiculous amount of gear, which included a drum set, three keyboards, several amps and a whopping 52 guitar pedals, barely fit on the stage. Dom the Guitar Tech had Granduciel’s spare guitars out next to the stage beside the bar. Each time Granduciel needed to switch off instruments, Dom walked through the audience with Granduciel’s guitar of choice in hand, switched off guitars, and then carried the old one back to the guitar rack. It made it imminently clear that Johnny Brenda’s was not built to house the type of band that’s rich enough to hire roadies to move their stuff. But it ultimately added to the whole experience.
The band kicked things off with “Arms Like Boulders” off 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues. It was one of a few older songs they played throughout the night, along with “Best Night” from 2011’s Slave Ambient and “Baby Missiles” from the same album. The set list consisted of new favorites as well, ranging from “Red Eyes” and “An Ocean In Between the Waves” from 2014’s Lost in the Dream, and “Pain” and “Strangest Thing,” from the band’s most recent, Grammy-winning album A Deeper Understanding.
All two hours of the set was captivating, but undoubtedly the climax came in the second half of the set as the Fishtown boys played a cathartic version of “Under the Pressure.” Even more specifically, the climax came definitely during the song’s bridge, which dissolved into a cacophony of sounds and lasers, mesmerizing the lucky 200 people who made their way into what will surely go down as one of the most memorable JB’s shows of all-time. Just when the audience forgot what song was even being played, drummer Charlie Hall led the band back into the main riff, creating an explosion of energy and applause from Fishtowners as they collectively removed their jaws from the floor. As the song concluded, it felt like the end of the show. But the band went on to play three more songs, one of which was a cover of John Lennon’s “Mind Games” before exiting the stage for the encoreless performance. As Granduciel left the stage with the rest of his band, he took the San Pellegrino with him and took a swig. He earned it.