The War on Drugs is one of those bands whose music sounds familiar, yet contemporary, all at once. Led by singer/guitarist Adam Granduciel, the Philadelphia outfit has deftly blended gritty heartland rock with motorik-influence rhythms and sparkling analogue synthesizers on a series of beloved albums, culminating in 2017’s Grammy-winning A Deeper Understanding and last year’s highly acclaimed I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Following their first appearance on Austin City Limits back in 2015, TWOD returned to our stage with a seasoned live show that drew heavily from those albums.
Taking the stage to enthusiastic applause, the band opened with IDLHA‘s “Old Skin,” a lush ballad that evolved into a dynamic rock anthem, its heart on its glistening sleeve. The septet followed with the more overtly rocking “Pain,” a cut from Deeper that perfectly highlights their ability to blend bright melodies with brooding synth textures and uplifting Granduciel guitar solos. For “An Ocean in Between Us,” drummer Charlie Hall leaned hard on the vibrant repetition of the motorik beat, laying down a skittering propulsion for the band to ride – one painted by near-ambient baritone sax moans from keyboardist Jon Natchez and an especially powerful Granduciel solo. The song melted into a haze of synth washes, which resolved into the gentle waves of “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” one of IDLHA’s most bluntly emotional tunes. “We’re honored to be here,” noted the bandleader as the group went into the beat-driven rock of “Victim.”
As the band set up for “Strangest Thing,” Granduciel mentioned that the tour began in Austin, and was ending with this ACL performance (which explained both the ultra tight performance and the giddy energy). So he dedicated the evening to TWOD’s hard-working crew, who made their presence felt with a dramatic light show near the end of the atmospheric ballad. Granduciel then led the band into one of their most representative songs: “Harmonia’s Dream,” combining the sparkling synthesizers and vocoder-style vocals implied by the title’s citing the eponymous pioneering electronic band, with the acoustic guitar and soaring melodies of the heartland rock that they love equally. The fingerpicked guitar of Anthony LaMarca and the beautiful piano riffs of keyboardist Robbie Bennett heralded the arrival of “Living Proof,” another of IDLHA’s most earnest emotional explorations, TWOD kept that vibe going with the dreamier, but still affecting, “Occasional Rain.” As a familiar synth ‘n’ guitar intro of “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” began, the crowd began to cheer – Granduciel used the good will to introduce the band (including keyboardist/guitarist/harmony vocalist Eliza Hardy Jones, who had the unenviable task of subbing for Lucius), before diving into a magnificent performance of what has probably become the band’s signature song. The audience made its appreciation known loudly.
“Thinking of a Place” indulged in more lush textures, with guitarist LaMarca providing subtle slide, keyboardists Bennett and Natchez layering on the ear candy, and Granduciel cutting through with an industrial strength Jazzmaster solo. “Thanks for having us on the legendary Austin City Limits,” Granduciel remarked. “Growing up without cable TV, this is one of the only things I grew up watching.” Following a brief tech fix, a wave of heavenly synthesizers essayed the beginning of “In Chains,” a tune that deftly mixed shimmering dreampop and anthemic rock that earned ardent huzzahs. Granduciel donned an acoustic guitar for the first time this evening for the lovely ballad “Rings Around My Father’s Eyes,” in honor of his dad’s ninetieth birthday. The War on Drugs ended their set with “Under the Pressure,” the epic lighter-waving opener from their breakthrough LP, 2014’s Lost in the Dream. The song ended in walls of tremelo, looped feedback and electronics, the audience going wild with their hands in the air. It was incredible end to an incredible show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it broadcasts this winter on your local PBS station as part of our Season 48.
The War on Drugs tape Austin City Limits, October 16, 2022. Photos by Scott Newton.