It’s the little things you take for granted. The last time I saw the riveting Philadelphia psych-rockers the War on the Drugs, at the sizable Fillmore Miami Beach in 2015, I had the luxury of raising my arms, maybe dancing a little bit.
Seven years later, with the band now immeasurably more popular—2021’s I Don’t Live Here Anymore peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart, for instance—and inexplicably downgraded to a smaller venue, motility wasn’t much of an option. Personal space was a blessing most of us couldn’t afford if we wanted to be near the action; a fight nearly broke out next to me because of this. It’s a regional booking vagary that an act that sold out the 20,789-seat Madison Square Garden, as the War on Drugs did in January, would then be scheduled at the 1,300-capacity Revolution Live, but Florida is weird like that. We endure it for the bands we love.
The night opened with a 30-minute set from ADVERTISEMENT, a Seattle band that wears its Seattleness all over its look and sound. The six-piece group’s 2020 debut was praised by NME for its “Rolling Stones-sized swagger,” but I heard different derivations last night. Essentially, ADVERTISEMENT conjured various bands from the ‘90s alt-rock heyday throughout its set—a little Nirvana, a little Lemonheads, a little Afghan Whigs—along with a dollop of the Doors, thanks to the rollicking keyboards. It all added up to a pleasing, muscular dynamic, enhanced by sometimes three guitars slashing and chiming at once, though it still feels like the group is developing its identity.
As for the headliner, my perspective is limited: I had to leave the War on Drugs’ set after just an hour for a family obligation. But that 60 minutes of transportive bliss revealed a band that has grown, paradoxically, both tighter and more expansive in the years since I last saw them perform.
Surprising opener “Baby Missiles,” the only tune to make the set list from 2011’s Slave Ambient, was a bath of churning drone in which the other instruments swam. The bombastic, unremittingly anthemic “Oceans of Darkness,” from the band’s newly released deluxe edition of I Don’t Live Here Anymore, suggested the outsized influence of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, further evidence that arenas, not mid-sized clubs, are the War on Drugs’ bailiwick. In the staggering “An Ocean Between the Waves,” singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel (clad in a trippy Beach House T-shirt) turned on an echo effect, his vocals rippling throughout the venue and seemingly beyond it.
Though it hurt to leave such an extraordinary show so early, it so happened that the group played several of the songs I wanted to hear most in that first hour, and they did not disappoint, to say the least. During the extended synthesizer intro to “Harmonia’s Dream,” simultaneously icy and inviting, I felt I had been teleported to a Kraftwerk concert. And “I Don’t Wanna Wait” and “Victim” were both slow burns that built, magisterially, into massive conflagrations—frenzies of communal ecstasy that felt bigger than life. I understand from a friend that this feeling intensified later on, during some of the hits I missed.
It was wonderful to hear sounds that, on the albums, could have been synthesized, but were in fact created organically, like Jon Natchez’s saxophone and trumpet, or even Charlie Hall’s drums, as tight, metronomic and hypnotic as a drum machine.
At some point, the magical, psychic break that’s unique to live music took hold, and I no longer felt like a sardine crammed in a tin can. I was floating somewhere amid the accommodating ether of the War on Drugs’ heartland dispatches, thinking that this must be how people felt seeing the Grateful Dead in their primacy. As with the Dead, there’s really no comparison between studio War on Drugs and live War on Drugs: It’s like transitioning from 2D to 3D, or black-and-white to color.
And this is all from seeing just one hour. I can’t imagine the wonders that awaited the rest of you lucky folks.