XPN Fest Recap: The War on Drugs and Sturgill Simpson deliver guitar jams of different sorts at BB&T - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
The War on Drugs | photo by Ashley Gellman for WXPN | agellmanphotos.com

While the night one headliners at #XPNFest were cerebral, experimental and beat-oriented, night two shifted the focus to a rock festival classic: the guitar.

Adam Granduciel of The War on Drugs is a master of instrumental tone and texture, of soundscaping — as well as atmospheric lead licks that transport the band and the crowd to the stratosphere. Sturgill Simpson is more down and dirty, an adherent of country / blues riff rock tradition, but played louder and faster than most of his peers (and heroes). Together, they treated the BB&T Pavilion crowd to expansive jams, but of two very different sorts.

Sturgill Simpson | photo by Ashley Gellman for WXPN | agellmanphotos.com

For his part, Sturgill Simpson is full of surprises. He opened the set with “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” from his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a song that started out like a slow and sensitive cowboy ballad but tore into a double-time rock rager. A couple songs later, he was transforming When In Rome’s 80s new wave classic “The Promise” into a saloon song all his own.

Covers mixed into his set heavily: “I’d Have to Be Crazy” by Willie Nelson, and “You Don’t Miss the Water” by William Bell (“which some of you might know as an Otis Redding song, if you don’t follow obscure songwriters,” he said). Songs wandered one into the next into the next, bound together by the connective tissue of long jams and smoking guitar solos, rapid-fire runs of notes, searing string bends; at one point, Simpson got so into a solo that he stumbled backwards and completely took out his vocal mic. “Who put a microphone there?” He joked after the song ended and a tech set it back up.

If there was a drawback, it was the way the jams went too far, stretched out too long, overstayed their welcome just a bit — Simpson has a magnificent, unique voice and is a writer of fantastic songs, and when the live focus is on how much he rips on the six string, those strengths get shortchanged. But moments nonetheless drew me back in, like the Black Crowes-esque “Keep it Between The Lines” and the bootstomping “Going Down,” an Alabama State Troopers cover that rocked the set to a close.

The War on Drugs | photo by Ashley Gellman for WXPN | agellmanphotos.com

Hearing the electronic pulse of German composer Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4 between sets definitely indicted we were in for a change of moods here. With the flick of a switch, the night became more spacious, a touch experimental, but nonetheless rooted in Granduciel and company’s core sense of songcraft.

The War on Drugs stepped to the stage and immediately took off into “Brothers,” a jangling ballad from Slave Ambient about finding a center of stability in a world of fear and uncertainty. From there, the focus was largely on the band’s Grammy-award winning A Deeper Understanding and its predecessor, the acclaimed Lost In A Dream. “Pain” was tentative and moving in its Pink Floyd-ian expanse; “An Ocean In Between The Waves” gradually brought the pulse up to a fever pitch, as drummer Charlie Hall hammered away at his drums motorik style while his hair flapped in the wind, and Granduciel dove in for lick after lick, solo after solo.

Friends and family were shouted out: “Strangest Thing” was sent to Granduciel’s niece and nephew Sally and Andres (“this is their first official rock show”). Bassist Dave Hartley’s introduction had people cheering for Fishtown; multi-instrumentalist Robbie Bennett’s intro had them cheering for Broomall.

The first high point came when the band performed “Arms Like Boulders” from their debut Wagonwheel Blues, and perennial XPNFest-ers Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who played an opening set earlier in the night) joined them to deck it out in brass band accents. The second high point was the extended version of Lost In The Dream opener “Under the Pressure,” already an epic song in scope, but this time the break stretched to the limits, the band reveling in the open space at the mid-song break before Hall hammered his toms to rocket it to a close.

From there, we were in the clouds of “Thinking of a Place” and “In Chains,” ending the night on magical musical notes that only the Drugs can provide. Can’t wait to see them back in Philly again.

Below, check out a gallery of photos from the show, both artists’ setlists, and an assortment of fan videos.

Sturgill Simpson Setlist
Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)
It Ain’t Flowers
The Promise
Breaker’s Roar
I’d Have to Be Crazy
Brace for Impact (Live A Little)
Keep It Between The Lines
Some Days
Turtles All The Way Down
You Don’t Miss The Water
Going Down
Call to Arms

Sturgill Simpson Setlist
An Ocean In Between The Waves
Strangest Thing
Arms Like Boulders (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
Eyes To The Wind
Red Eyes
Under The Pressure
Thinking of A Place
In Chains

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