The War on Drugs is a band with a long backstory. It had a “primal” era. For a period of time, musicians would swap in and out of the band’s lineup. The band’s frontman, Adam Granduciel, has described showing up to DIY venues with a different crew every night. Eventually, The War on Drugs came together, but it still serves as one of those bands with a haze of distinct eras with loosely defined beginnings and ends.
Maybe that’s why The War on Drugs has a base of devotees who’ve made the trek three or four times to see the band in its various iterations. The band released its first album in 2008, and at one point those fans might have been an energetic bunch. On Feb. 25, they showed up — but didn’t quite turn up — at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for “An Evening of Live Drugs.”
It’s hard to say there was any more than intermittent hooting and hollering during a show that ran close to two and a half hours, even for a crowd loosened up by India pale ales. The crowd perhaps took “milling around” as gospel; the 30- and 40-somethings in flannels commented their approval of the beer and every now and then; a dad walked by, son in tow.
At the same time, these are fans that show up for an evening of swaying to arena rock, which the band delivered in spades, with a set list heavy on long intros and instrumental digressions. It would also do good to remember that — if the audience needed a jolt — this is a band with a tour speckled by bad luck. On top of a Madison Square Garden show smack-dab in the middle of a nor’easter, the band dropped its openers at the beginning of its tour to reduce the likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak postponing shows, but ran the risk of a crowd that might need an extra boost.
It may not be particularly fair to expect an energetic crowd at a War on Drugs show, but the band certainly put in the effort to perform a show for a crowd that was, at the very least, engaged. It’s not a band that’ll rock your socks off from the get-go. Its music needs time to take space, at which point, on tracks such as “Harmonia’s Dream,” the strobes started glittering, the pace picked up and the room began to feel a little smaller.
The band opened with “Old Skin,” one of those tracks that, as The War on Drugs does, builds slowly, then folds its way into a spring bloom. Honeyed synths clash with spats of lyrics such as “to follow my father’s dream/ then watch it fade away,” which begs the question, of the band’s stagecraft, is that thick orange haze a sunrise or sunset?
It’s more or less answerable by listeners’ own outlook. But, this is also a band that’s experiencing a sunrise in the middle of an endless sunset. (Yes, The War on Drugs may be more popular than ever, and its instrumental craft is definitely top notch, but sometimes it falls short of innovating upon its Americana influences.) Granduciel has crafted a band that, after years of work, has finally found that golden, stage-filling sound, which is indeed evident of a new horizon. From an understated, imposing cluster in the middle of the stage, the band’s sound released across the room, sometimes with a tinny guitar peeling into songs like “Red Eyes,” where that brand of chill-dad rock reclined into stadium rock.
The seven-piece band is chock-full of characters — drummer Charlie Hall, who took the stage in a kimono with long hair billowing from a fan behind him, for example — but it’s great at playing as one. Think of the titular track of its latest album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, when the vocals swell and the instrumentals sync for a few moments of airy bliss.
The group’s members work with each other instead of for one another, even when Granduciel takes off on a solo. Granduciel’s vocals often find themselves overwhelmed by a piano from the back, the drums filling the gaps in between. The band’s guitars build and take off; altogether, they carry a show that might run too long, but lends itself to laid-back rockers ready to play the night away.