In the eighth episode of the first season of AMC’s ’80s-set drama Halt And Catch Fire, our scrappy heroes are preparing to bring their revolutionary but under-hyped computer, the Cardiff Giant, to COMDEX, an important tech expo in Las Vegas that could make or break their business. After a season’s worth of roadblocks and struggle, though, everything collapses: The FBI shuts down the company. Down and out, the main characters remain undeterred. It’s a classic underdog story, and this is when perhaps the most powerful scene of the season happens.
The core group — savvy businessman Joe MacMillan, talented but troubled programmer Cameron Howe, and husband-and-wife team Gordon and Donna Clark — has nothing left to lose. So, they load up their computer, a direct competitor to tech giant IBM, into the Clark family station wagon, and head to Vegas anyway. As they’re piling into the car, “Red Eyes” by The War On Drugs — from the band’s 2014 album Lost In The Dream — begins playing in the background, and it captures the mood perfectly.
The song and the scene reinforce each other’s keen sense of optimism and adventure, making you feel like anything is possible, even when it seems like nothing is. It’s the American dream, and that’s exactly what The War On Drugs is.
I mean that less in the sense that they’ve gone through a lot between their formation and their amazing 2017 album A Deeper Understanding (although like most bands, I’m sure they have), but in the sense that they sound like America itself: Aware of where it came from, living in the now, and looking forward to what’s ahead with wide, excited eyes.
The War On Drugs have showed off some of the album’s new songs with some late night TV performances, radio appearances, and promotional affairs of that sort, but when they kicked off their 2017 tour at Portland, Maine’s State Theatre on Monday night, the record finally got to where it belongs: On a stage, reminding everybody that traditionally leaning American rock music is nowhere near the sorry state it seems to get the reputation for.
It’s really saying something that there’s another level the songs of A Deeper Understanding can even reach. In their studio versions, they already sound tremendous and important. But really, these songs, most of which clock in at over six minutes, were made for a concert setting, where the band can explore every note, where a band and audience can feed off each other to make a moment last in a meaningful way.
That’s precisely what they did last night at the tour opener. Slower numbers like “Knocked Down” and “Strangest Thing” filled the room with all the warmth of a crackling fall bonfire, while adrenaline shots like “Holding On” and “Nothing To Find” made the less-than-2,000-capacity venue feel like a raucous stadium Bruce Springsteen stadium show in the mid ‘80s.
That Springsteen comparison is one the The War On Drugs can’t seem to escape, but that’s only because more so than any other band today, they have their feet so confidently planted in the past and the present. Adam Granduciel pulled out a harmonica to accompany some tracks, and an electronic pad full of blinking lights for others, which felt like the most visually literal example of what I’m talking about. They’re a band undeniably enamored by their roots, but even more in love with making sure those roots achieve the potential that only hindsight and a contemporary mindset can allow.
As the first tour stop in support of the new album, this show marked the live debut for several A Deeper Understanding tracks — “In Chains,” “Knocked Down,” “Nothing To Find,” “Up All Night,” and “Clean Living” — and they all went off effortlessly. Album opener “Up All Night” was particularly impressive — that moment about a minute in when the drums really bloom and come to the front of the mix nearly knocks the wind out of you in person.
“In Chains” was first on the set list last night, and not only was it a strong show opener, but it was a perfect thesis statement as well. Last night, it gave the room atmosphere as it filled the room like expanding insulating foam; propulsive energy that never loses interest; intricate saxophone, harmonica, and synth textures; and the realization that Granduciel is a strong candidate for greatest rock songwriter of the past few years. It felt significant.
The band hasn’t lost a step with their back catalogue, either, by the way: The sax-led breakdown jam of “Under The Pressure” was a pillar moment, and after the band wrapped its nearly two-hour main set with Lost In The Dream album closer “In Reverse,” they left the stage, leaving fans salivating and clamoring for an encore that never came.
When the lights came up and some mid-tempo exit song began playing over the PA, among the fans heading for the exits was a similarly sized group of others, myself included, who didn’t want to move, who didn’t want to believe that it was over. I stood there and looked around at my compatriots, readjusting their eyes to the light, sitting still, waiting for more. We just experienced the very first version of what’s bound to be one of the year’s most exciting tours, led by the most engaging rock visionary we’ve seen in a while, and yet, we still wanted to gorge on more and fill our bellies with as much as we could get.
Much like the show itself, it was a perfectly American moment.
Find last night’s set list here, and watch fan-shot footage of the live debuts of “In Chains,” “Knocked Down,” “Nothing To Find,” “Up All Night,” and “Clean Living” below.
Revisit our interview with Adam Granduciel here.