Not a year has passed since music fans began clamoring for opportunities to reunite with their favorite artists and reconnect with the music they love.
A chance at “normal” after two years of viral – and emotional – peaks and valleys. Now, the return to the stage has found its footing in Philly. While fans armed with vaccination cards and masks have taken their well-deserved spots on venue floors, the anticipation around a special night out in a pandemic reminds us how quickly we can find ourselves disappointed and how good it feels when we’re not let down. Concerts in the city are delivering that elevating experience on a regular basis.
We’ve all learned to adjust expectations when it comes to large gatherings, but fans, musicians, and venues alike continue to bear the brunt of each covid wave’s blow to live music, where a cancellation or postponement can reset the clock for six months to a year.
Philly’s own The War on Drugs, embarking on their long-awaited tour, announced they were postponing their shows in Nashville and Atlanta just days before the band was set to take the stage for their first of two shows at The Met, their first hometown shows since 2019.
“If everyone remains negative and healthy, we will continue the tour in Philly on January 27th.” the band said on Instagram. Thankfully for their hometown fans, the show would go on. The band appeared before a sold-out room with no opening act to keep fans waiting.
“We wouldn’t miss this one for the world,” frontman Adam Granduciel told the eager crowd.
Thursday’s show made it clear there’s no distance left between The War on Drugs and their fans. A much-needed closeness after two years of separation. The rich light design intertwined with the theatrical smoke and draped the band’s layers of familiar sounds as they confidently delivered an equally dreamy and imposing set, enveloping the audience in 80s synth-rock nostalgia. Fans are well-acquainted with the band’s signature feel: a lush soundscape of rock instruments presenting a united front, reminiscent of Springsteen or Petty. Like the greats, the band and their instruments filled most of the stage, almost threatening to create clutter, but instead engineering a sound not at all derivative.
The excitement among the mostly masked crowd was palpable. A mix of young and older, the makeup of the crowd stands as a testament to the band’s ability to capture the feeling of wanderlust with their impressive sound. Like a stadium wave, the sold-out crowd moved along to every song with enchantment.
For this tour, The War on Drugs recruited West Philly multi-instrumentalist Eliza Hardy Jones to provide additional layers and texture to Granduciel’s wistful vocals and Keyboardist Robbie Bennett, Saxophonist Jon Natchez, Guitarist Anthony LaMarca, Bassist Dave Hartley, and Drummer Charlie Hall’s meticulously planned sounds.
Opening with “Old Skin,” a song from last year’s album I Don’t Live Here Anymore, the song struck emotional chords of longing and abandon. These themes and accompanying melodies are not novel to the band’s catalogue, but with every showcase, they’re presented in a different light. With “Old Skin, the band temporarily peels back the layers of synths and guitars to reveal a softer, cooler, arrangement. As with “Living Proof”, a softer song that should feel out of place but doesn’t, Granduciel’s bare emotions take center stage along an acoustic riff that evolves into a far less naked sound as it reaches its end.
Popular favorites “An Ocean in Between the Waves,” “Red Eyes,” and “Under the Pressure” punctuated the set list with the warmer tones of their hazy palette, while soon-to-be new favorite “Harmonia’s Dream” reminded fans that the band knows who they are: a group capable of pumping out main-stage-worthy anthems that would make Don Henley check the songwriting credits. The lyrics “sometimes forward is the only way back” from the song are a poignant encapsulation of Granduciel and co.’s journey from Fishtown’s Johnny Brenda’s to headlining sports arenas accompanied by a melody capable of transporting fans from the floor of The Met to top-down convertible rides without setting foot outside—or, in my case, without owning a car. The building instrumentation in the song is a recurring device used by the ensemble to create a sweeping wave of something simply catchy, but not at all simple.
In perhaps the least meticulously staged part of the night, Granduciel dedicated “Strangest Thing” from the band’s 2017 Grammy-winning album, A Deeper Understanding, to a fan named Kevin who had tweeted at the band multiple times requesting they add the song to their set. Feeling secondhand joy at one of their own being noticed, the crowd chanted Kevin’s name. The seven-minute slow-burner paired perfectly with The Met’s orchestral adornments, the audience taking it all in.
Good choice, Kevin.
The show reached its climax with a blistering performance of “Under the Pressure,” with the crowd exploding in a burst of energy that wasn’t depleted by the night’s earlier anthems. Before ending the show with “Occasional Rain,” a song Granduciel has called “a perfect closer,” the frontman said he had been sick so “we’re gonna take it easy tonight,” forgoing the encore. No complaints from me or the audience, knowing another night and a winter storm awaited the beloved band and tomorrow night’s fans.
Before their Friday night show at The Met, the band asked fans to arrive early and use caution while braving the elements. They took the stage promptly at 8 pm to deliver the full show that Granduciel seemed apologetic for not delivering the night before.