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The War on Drugs… Fun stuff, eh? Whether or not you agree with Nixon’s controversial program that would jail hundreds of thousands of American citizens, I think we can all agree on one thing: it’s a pretty damn cool band name. And, in the same way that Nixon’s plan was dramatically expanded in the 80s under Reagan’s presidency, The War on Drugs (the band) also seem to be finding themselves benefitting from the 80s. Nostalgia for the once maligned decade is now running rampant, but instead of trying to write a synth pop tune half as good as “Bizarre Love Triangle” or “West End Girls” like many other bands are attempting (hint: they won’t), The War on Drugs are mining a different strand of 80s: the arena filling Heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty.
Singer Adam Granduciel is an odd amalgamation of some of America’s finest: the songwriting prowess of Springsteen, the melodic guitar playing of Mark Knopfler, and the mumbled ramblings of Bob Dylan. Shrouded by his mass of curly black hair, he rarely moved from center stage, opting to simply lean back and let the solos flow. Behind him, the band conjured up a hazy take on Springsteen-esque grandeur, all the while being held down by a constant and pounding motorik beat. It may be a bit of a disservice, but imagine if Springsteen (his last mention, I promise) followed through with his love of Suicide (the band) and delved into the German Krautrock of Neu! and Harmonia; you wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
The War on Drugs certainly hits the right marks with their almost arena yearning sound. Their latest release, Lost in the Dream, has instantly shot them into the public consciousness with a top 40 Billboard placement and a sold-out show at the Paradise. The last time they stopped by Boston was nearly exactly two years ago at the Middle East Downstairs and, while that was a good show, their stop at the Paradise definitely saw a band movin’ on up to the next level.
This was perfectly exemplified by the band kicking off their set with Lost in the Dream instant highlight, “Under the Pressure.” While the performance was missing the chugging horns found on the album, it was an excellent choice to slowly pull the audience into the dream Granduciel and co. were weaving on stage. Led on by the constant ticking of a hi-hat that sounded like it was culled from the oldest and cheapest drum machine to exist, the band slowly came to life before Granduciel launched into his first of many guitar solos. His cleanly distorted, slightly phased and delayed tone instantly recalled 80s pop and was perhaps the strongest point of melody in the entire band.
Just to prove they aren’t kidding around, they instantly bursted into another one of their bigger songs, “Baby Missiles”. Teetering between hazy synths and a groovin’ rhythm that instantly recalled Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” (okay, really the last time!), they hit 60 mph in five seconds flat while Granduciel’s harmonica cut through the mix like a highway’s clarion call to speed up.
Any other band would save these highlights for an encore, but they instead worked as a nice appetizer before the main meal of nearly the entirety of Lost in the Dream. “Eyes to the Wind” (which was dedicated to Granduciel’s parents in the audience) and “Best Night”, The War on Drug’s take on Gram Parson’s cosmic Americana, and the spiritual sequel to “Baby Missiles,” “Red Eyes,” were early highlights. Because their catalog doesn’t display too much diversity, the show felt like one, long cross country journey through America; the sights may change, but you’re still going down the same, gravely highway.
It was really hard to even think of The War on Drugs as anything but a purely American band. While they do draw from some varied influences, they blend it all together in a cocktail that sounds like a dizzying glimpse into America in the 80s. Atmospheric cuts such as Lost in the Dream’s title track and “Suffering” kept the crowd enraptured and “Comin’ Through” felt like a warm ray of sunshine shining through a rolled down window, especially with the song’s blissed out wah-guitar solo.
Unfortunately, a poor mix permeated most of the set. At some points, a massive burst of static would sit underneath the instruments and the show itself was too loud, sometimes muddling up the subtles that exist in The War on Drug’s music. No matter, the band seemed to power through it and, while it didn’t create the best atmosphere for the show, it certainly didn’t hinder it to the point of being unenjoyable.
They may not have the coolest influences, but I doubt they give a damn. The War on Drugs are one hell of a live band, constantly falling into that sweet spot of motorik grooves, soaring guitar solos and arena ready echoes that would reverberate around the Grand Canyon and not lose any steam for days. A phenomenal band that have finally found their footing, it’s only up from here.