It's still not completely clear what the War on Drugs are trying to accomplish on a grand scale, but it sure is a hell of a ride to be taking with them. Adam Granduciel and company maybe have a particular point in mind -- or maybe the point is not to have one at all. Monday night at First Avenue, their show seemed like just a quick stop on the way to something bigger, as well as a challenge to hop in the backseat to come with them.
They opened with the slow-burning "In Reverse" from this year's Lost in the Dream and floated into "Under the Pressure," the newest single from the album. Two songs had eaten up roughly 12 minutes of the night in what seemed like 90 seconds -- just what sort of wizardry were these gentlemen working with? "Baby Missiles" from 2011's Slave Ambient followed. During that song, the feeling stirred that nobody who engages even passively with this band can escape: It's an acute nostalgia for a past that maybe wasn't your own, coupled with elation and sadness -- all at once.
The slow-motion fireworks continued with "Ocean Between the Waves," which started offering a few answers as to the band's grand scheme, but just barely. The music seemed overly familiar while also distant. Parts that shouldn't fit together dovetailed seamlessly: Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Jackson Browne, Sonic Youth. It's a brilliant miasma and the end product is flawless in its construct.
As "Arms Like Boulders" from 2008's Wagonwheel Blues raced along -- a rare fast-paced song -- the growth this band has endured was obvious but none of the outward, physical signs showed. There hasn't been an awkward phase. To the contrary, the band seems to have only gotten stronger, and there haven't been any falls or unfortunate accidents.
An emotional rendition of "Burning" ended with Granduciel dangling his guitar in front of a nearby amp to produce a layer of feedback in the song's finale, which led into an extended (even for this band, with its arsenal of songs that clock in at six minutes or more) version of their powerhouse "Lost in the Dream," which held the crowd in rapt attention. The proper set ended with a very long version of "Red Eyes," which found the crowd gently swaying bad and forth, singing along to every word, and "Eyes to the Wind," the band leaving behind a feedback loop blaring over the PA as they exited to the green room.
After several minutes -- long enough where it started to become feasible that they may not actually return for an encore -- the band reassembled for an encore that lived up to what encores are supposed to be. They again built slowly to start, with "Suffering," and then Granduciel noted they wanted to play a song from "a close Minnesota friend of ours." An amusing lie, it turned out, as they offered up a cover of "Born in Time," a Bob Dylan rarity from the
By then, the proceedings had created a realm for thoughts far deeper than "I wonder if they'll play my favorite song" or "I need another beer." The War on Drugs make music that, while it's not confrontational itself, sometimes forces you to think about things you maybe don't want to think about. Mistakes you've made, people you've hurt, a situation in which you maybe didn't do the right thing. But in its brilliant construction, it's also the fentanyl patch to dull the pain and the counselor who will help you talk it over a bit. Now, the next step is to outdo themselves.
Critic's Bias: I acquired Slave Ambient at a friend's insistence during a particularly bad patch in 2011, when a lot of things weren't going my way. I didn't get it at first until one dreadful night a couple of weeks later. I was turning over a lot of things in my mind while listening to it and found, toward the end, that I felt immeasurably better. I immediately listened to it again and then never stopped listening for a multitude of reasons.
The Crowd: One of the most respectful, polite, sold-out crowds I've ever been a part of in First Avenue.
Overheard in the Crowd: The guy behind me kept saying things like, "The crowd is in a hazy mist" and "The band seems awash in the glow of victory!" to me after he saw me pull out my notebook and pen. He wasn't intrusive and was trying to be funny, but he just wasn't very funny. Luckily, it didn't last long.
Notebook Dump: This encore. This is what all encores are going to be measured against from now on.
Under the Pressure
Ocean Between the Waves
Arms Like Boulders
Lost in the Dream
Eyes to the Wind
Born in Time (Bob Dylan cover)
Come to the City