It’s not a particularly great time to be a rock band on the festival circuit. As rock has continued to decline in popularity on the Top 40 and be dominated in the streaming world, it has understandably taken a backseat at the big, multigenre festivals across the country (worry not internationally, rock still crushes in Europe and Latin America). Of course there are exceptions, as artists like Vampire Weekend and Phoebe Bridgers have become festival mainstays, but the vast majority of the big rock acts you’d catch at night at a festival are bands whose roots go back to the early aughts (The Strokes, The Killers) or even earlier (Foo Fighters, Green Day, Rage Against The Machine will close out a Coachella night next year).
If you’re looking for a rock act that’s genuinely made the jump to closing out the biggest fests, you have Tame Impala and not much else. But with the release of their latest album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, The War On Drugs could conceivably be the next act to follow suit.
You don’t need to squint to see the similarities. Both Tame Impala and The War On Drugs are essentially bands with singular creative figureheads, and both draw on past sounds for updated, very vibey interpretations. And both are pretty absent from the social media-driven cult of personality that seems to boost so many other acts into the mainstream. But where they differ, and where The War On Drugs most have their work cut out for them, is in who they appeal to, and how. Tame still seems to skew young in their reach, boosted by cosigns from figures like Travis Scott and Lady Gaga. But, as noted on a recent episode of Indiecast, The War On Drugs’ leader Adam Granduciel has yet to make the same inroads, despite what should be easy access through their Atlantic Records affiliations.
On Friday night at Desert Daze at Lake Perris, CA, The War On Drugs headlined a modest, feisty festival for their first proper show since the pandemic, and first in support of the new record. It also provided a bit of a test for the band as bona fide festival marquee acts. Sure, it’s not the first time they’ve headlined an event, but it is the first time they’ve done so where it looks like it should be commonplace in coming years. Funny enough, Tame Impala was booked for the same spot at the same fest in 2018, shortly before they headlined Coachella in 2019. No, I don’t think The War On Drugs will follow that exact path, but other, more on-brand events could definitely be in their future, especially after they wrap their initial 2022 run that will see them perform at Madison Square Garden.
At Desert Daze, the appearance felt less like a coronation than a warm-up, but that had more to do with the festival returning with reduced capacity and stages than prior incarnations, as well as less production than the band will surely have on their own tour. But what stood out most was just how the musicianship of the band connects with audiences. The crowd ranged from teens to grandparents, but the music in these settings proves pretty undeniable, as Granduciel’s regular solos soar without the need for a dramatic spotlight or lasers. That said, flourishes of that nature will surely be welcome when they arrive.
Coming after sets from bands like Ty Segall and Diiv, whose in-the-moment lack of polish is worn like a badge of honor, The War On Drugs blew the competition away. The songs were mostly just a couple of weeks into the world, with the exception of “Pain” and “Under The Pressure,” and struck as the equivalent of radio hits thanks to the strength in the songwriting and the tightness of the performance. For those that wanted to wander the grounds and trip out of the psychedelic art installations, the tunes provided a perfect soundtrack. And the compositions made up for the fact that the band doesn’t do much for stage banter, that there were no video screens, that they were only given a 70-minute slot. There’s a life to a War On Drugs song that reveals itself like the plot of a movie, that rewards attention as to not miss out on the fully-conceived twists and turns.
In a world where passive listening thrives, The War On Drugs works on both levels, much like Tame Impala. Whether they can successfully follow that blueprint will be seen over the next few years, but regardless of the trajectory, no band today strikes me as comfortable in their own skin. They are an ambitious band that lets the music do the talking. They let their songs cut through the pop culture noise. They might not inspire selfies with themselves in the background, but they will inspire throwing the album on again for the drive home after the concert. The War On Drugs are a band solely about the music, in a time when very few can say the same.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.