The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a blizzard that dropped nearly a foot of snow on New York certainly could have put a major damper on the War on Drugs’ biggest-ever concert in the five boroughs — but despite those obstacles, an impressive crowd witnessed the group’s debut at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
Indeed, the Philadelphia band’s 18-song, 130-minute performance in many ways offered a refreshing snapshot of the state of arena rock circa 2022. Aside from drummer Charlie Hall’s snazzy patterned shirt and windblown hair and a tasteful light show, there was little, if any, flash. Rather, the War on Drugs offered up tune after great melodic tune, majestic sonics and sturdy musicianship clearly rooted in the teachings of Dylan, Springsteen, Petty and Knopfler. The group’s unabashed love of these forbearers is a big reason why its music connects, and why it is still finding new fans 15 years into its career.
On a night when it wouldn’t have been surprising to see a thinner crowd than usual file into the world’s most famous arena, more than 10,000 people braved the elements to watch the Drugs at work. The significance was not lost on frontman Adam Granduciel, who admitted onstage that he and his bandmates expected they’d be playing to 800 people. Later, he joked about crying in the Madison Square Garden locker room during the encore, like an athlete who needed an ice bath and a stretch before coming back out for overtime.
There may have been some early jitters afoot, as the group required a couple of songs to gain momentum, but they caught fire on the roof-raising guitar solos on “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” from 2014’s breakthrough album “Lost in the Dream.” Of the seven tracks performed from last year’s “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” the most interesting explored loops (“Victim,” with shades of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now”) and drum-machine ambiance (“I Don’t Wanna Wait”), resisting the urge to reach too frequently for the Drugs’ reliable six-string heroics.
Flanked by Hall, bassist Dave Hartley, keyboardist Robbie Bennett and multi-instrumentalists Anthony LaMarca, Jon Natchez and Eliza Hardy Jones, Granduciel gave several shout-outs to key members of the larger War on Drugs family, including manager Ami Spishock (whose birthday was just hours away), Secretly Group marketing director/new parent Hannah Carlen and, on show closer “Occasional Rain,” longtime friend Mike Bloch, who is not actually in the band but played lead guitar in the studio on several of the new album’s tracks.
That sense of inhabiting a larger rock and roll lineage was felt throughout the evening, particularly on highlights such as “Under the Pressure” (Granduciel crouched to his knees as the waves of sound slowly decayed into the MSG rafters), “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Burning,” a “Dancing in the Dark” descendant dedicated to Granduciel’s dad.
The power of the band’s music eliminated the need for elaborate visuals. Thin, vertical lines of LEDs shimmered and swayed behind the group, and banks of lights on the sides of the stage bathed the artists in purple and yellow at suitable moments. The scheme switched to triangles of white on the first song of the encore, “Thinking of a Place,” emphasizing the perpetually out-of-reach dreams at the heart of its narrative.
If the characters in Granduciel’s songs often struggle with the impermanence of life’s formative moments, the pursuit of them is consistently rewarding, especially on such a grand stage as Madison Square Garden. On songs such as “Harmonia’s Dream” (”It’s so hard to find a friend these days”) and “Living Proof” (“I know the pain you’ve been feeling / I’ve been to the place that you’ve tried escaping”), the War On Drugs’ music proved thoughtful in a way that eludes many of its contemporaries. Amid a world cluttered by extraneous noise, that’s a valuable currency.
Here is the War on Drugs’ set list:
An Ocean in Between the Waves
I Don’t Wanna Wait
Your Love Is Calling My Name
Come to the City
I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Under the Pressure
Thinking of a Place