This is a tougher question that it ought to be, but maybe put me down for The War on Drugs.
Ask 100 people who they think is the best Rock band from Philadelphia and my guess is your leading vote-getter will be Hall & Oates. (Maybe you get some votes for Todd Rundgren, although in my experience most folks don’t remember that’s where he’s from, even. He’s more of an artist who grew up there and left, isn’t he?)
H&O is a worthy answer. Darryl and John had a great run and I have nothing but praise for their work. But … were they ever a Rock band? Rock & Roll? Writ large, sure, but to me they always seemed more like an R&B band.
And that makes sense, given that we’re talking about Philly, which has never really been a Rock kinda town. NY, LA, Chicago, Boston – work your way through America’s biggest cities and pretty much all of them have long history of Rock greatness. But by and large Philadelphia’s legacy has evolved around various iterations of TSOP – The Spinners, The Stylistics, The O’Jays, Archie Bell & the Drells, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, The Delfonics, Lou Rawls, and so on.
When I ponder the “Greatest Rock Bands from Philadelphia” question I often wind up centered on some groups most folks don’t know. Tommy Conwell & the Young Rumblers were incredible, but aside from a brief MTV moment in the mid-late ’80s they’ve been consigned to the “local legends” heap. Marah was fantastic for a while. Wanderlust‘s 1995 debut (and their live show) convinced me they were going to be big, but they split and none of Scot Sax’s later projects (solo, Feel, Bachelor #1) ever got any traction. Cinderella was always a lot more than the hair metal wave they got swallowed up by and deserve a good bit of respect for their first three releases. The Hooters were wonderful (and Eric Bazilian has posted a long successful career as a songwriter and producer since they split). I loved Hail Social. And I don’t pretend to know all of the city’s bands, so there are certainly some I’m missing.
But lately (thanks to a reminder from my buddy Evans) I’ve circled back around to The War on Drugs, whom I first discovered in 2017. I liked them then but I never gave them a deep listen. For the past three or four days, though, they’re about the only thing I’ve played.
Adam Granduciel is a big Dylan fan and it shows in his lyrics and vocal delivery. But what I’m finding most compelling is the way the lyrical depth is so organically embedded in tone. He’s a fantastic tunesmith, and the layers of warm guitar (stretched across a rhythm foundation that reminds me of nothing quite so much as mid’70s Fleetwood Mac) embed the message in aural texture that’s seemingly bottomless.
My buddy Michael Smith (of Fiction 8) puts it way better than I do:
Acoustic guitars holding down sixteenth notes so well that you don’t even need a high-hat cymbal. Bright Fender guitars playing against a bright piano so crisp that it could almost be mistaken for a hammered dulcimer. A soft snare drum with a breathy top end of fine-grit sandpaper. It’s a lovely sound.
If I had to vote on the all-time best Rock band from Philly right now I might just say it’s The War on Drugs. Of course, maybe you’d argue they’re not exactly Rock, either.
In any case, have a listen.
Categories: Music/Popular Culture