There is a classic vibe about Philadelphia's the War on Drugs, but it didn't come easy to them. They finally stepped out from the shadow of former and founding member Kurt Vile with their recently released third album, Lost in the Dream, with Adam Granduciel emerging as an equally prominent songwriter and guitarist. But one doesn't simply stumble into so many critical comparisons to Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) and Bruce Springsteen; it took many years of late nights, honing their keyboard-heavy classic rock, to make those touchstones obvious.
Seeing them play this evening, their first of two back-to-back sold-out shows at the Rickshaw, one got the sense of how much these guys have practiced. A six-piece live band, with several multi-instrumentalists, they delivered a set of album cuts from their first three records with added emphasis, making them all larger than their recorded versions, although that kind of expansion is expected of any worthy jam band. More telling were the amp problems that Granduciel suffered, apparently breaking two of them over the course of their set.
They quickly swapped the amp out the first time it broke, while the band maintained a drone trailing out from "Under the Pressure," leading Granduciel to crack that while a broken amp would be fine for a free show, the audience paid for this one, so they deserved full sound. The second time it happened was mid-song, during "Your Love Is Calling My Name" in their encore, yet the band kept the track on the rails, extending the track's prog-rock leanings while Granduciel cranked knobs in concealed frustration until deciding to give up and use whatever sound he had left. Maintaining momentum through mishaps like these is the true test of a great live band.
Overall, Granduciel's voice still had some of that nasal Dylan quality in its timbre, more apparent on their early Americana-laced recordings, but it has become streamlined, as if Dylan went stadium pop rock with Knopfler in the late '70s and early '80s rather than evangelical. However, given their jam proclivities, consistent tempos and lack of memorable choruses, their Midwest dream-rock songs did tend to run together after a while.
Granduciel had a humble, endearing, somewhat reluctant stage presence, mumbling thanks and cracking tasteful jokes between songs, but, aside from the heart-wrenching ballad "Suffering," he was only truly captivating when he'd solo. The rest of the band, while thoroughly solid instrumentally and even dynamic on tracks like "Baby Missiles" and "Red Eyes," tended to blend into the background behind the frontman.
Thankfully, Granduciel ripped a killer solo on pretty much every track, dropping particularly incendiary phrases on "Eyes to the Wind" and "Red Eyes." This is clearly his band, and they'll go wherever he leads it. If Granduciel gets a little bigger up front, and crafts a few sing-along anthems, they'll be touring stadiums in no time. Seeing them now is like seeing Kings of Leon just before Only by the Night came out.