On Friday, The War On Drugs will release Live Drugs, an old-school live album from a band known for faithfully adhering to old-school classic rock principles. Adam Granduciel has discussed using Bruce Springsteen’s Live 1975-85 — an expansive hodgepodge of recordings compiled over a decade and sequenced like a single show — as a template. Live Drugs takes that idea one step further by Frankenstein-ing several different versions of a song into a single super live track. It’s like The War On Drugs on steroids.
The result is a true rarity: an excellent live record by a contemporary rock band. It also feels like a capstone for their Lost In The Dream/A Deeper Understanding era, when The War On Drugs went from being a cult-ish indie act to one of the more popular and acclaimed mainstream rock bands of their generation. While the live versions don’t radically divert from their studio counterparts, the lushness and flat-out bigness of Live Drugs culminates the atmospheric and insistently anthemic heartland rock of the last two studio records. Granduciel set about to make grand music that could envelop the largest rooms, and Live Drugs shows that he achieved that goal. Whatever the band does after this will feel like the start of a new era, The War On Drugs 2.0.
Or perhaps it will be The War On Drugs 3.0. After all, this was a much different band before Lost In The Dream, which you can tell from records like 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues and 2011’s Slave Ambient, and also from their live bootlegs, of which there are dozens available online. If Live Drugs intends to tell a story about this band’s “popular” years, then the live bootlegs exist as a kind of parallel narrative, tracing a decade-plus of evolution and refinement. In that time, The War On Drugs grew from a glorified solo project for Granduciel to a formidable live rock band. Live Drugs presents them as a fully realized unit; the bootlegs reveal that getting there was a steady and frequently exciting process that took years.
Ahead of Live Drugs, here are eight shows that any War On Drugs fan will want to check out in order to fully appreciate the band’s arc up until now.
The 2009 edition of The War On Drugs is barely recognizable when placed next to Live Drugs. Granduciel is joined as always by stalwart bassist Dave Hartley, but the only other member is drummer Mike Zanghi. They had one full-length, Wagonwheel Blues, to their name, and it’s clear that Granduciel is still working out the War On Drugs aesthetic. He already had some solid tunes, including two songs — “Buenos Aires Beach” and “Arms Like Boulders” — that would remain staples of War On Drugs concerts in future years. But this radio station appearance holds primary interest for capturing The War On Drugs in an embryonic state, as well as offering a taste of obscurities like “Show Me The Coast” that would soon rapidly disappear from their setlists.
By the time of this fantastic Slave Ambient-era gig, The War On Drugs had expanded to include long-time keyboardist Robbie Bennett, which made them sound more majestic on stage. The material had also improved considerably; on songs like “Your Love Is Calling My Name” and “Come To The City,” which are rich with extended instrumental passages, you can hear Granduciel taking steps toward the guitar-hero posturing he’ll fully embrace by the time of Lost In The Dream. 2011 generally was a big development year for The War On Drugs, a period when you can hear them growing as a live act by leaps and bounds from the beginning of the year (when they were opening for bands like Destroyer, in support of Kaputt) to this show, which took place the night before a memorable appearance with The National at the Beacon Theatre. This gig is also noteworthy for Drugsheads because it includes the most memorable performance of the Grateful Dead’s “Touch Of Grey,” which regrettably exited their repertoire not long after.
If you notice a lot of NYC shows listed so far, that’s due mostly to the work of Dan Lynch of NYCTaper, an early Drugs partisan who dutifully recorded many of the band’s early gigs (as well as many great shows played after TWOD became indie-famous). The band’s return to the Bowery Ballroom just five months after the December show is looser and chattier, with Granduciel showing off the dry wit and rock-geek enthusiasm he normally reserves for interviews. While this recording shows that The War On Drugs were continuing to grow in confidence and instrumental prowess as the lengthy Slave Ambient tour progressed, the highlight here might be the between-song patter, which includes riffs about how Adam recently quit smoking, local musician Doug Keith, and Mike Scott of The Waterboys, one of TWOD’s biggest influences. The cover of “A Pagan Place” here is especially impassioned and magnificent.
If I had to recommend just one recording from this list above all others, it would have to be this incredible show from early in the Lost In The Dream tour. Many of these songs — “Under The Pressure,” “Red Eyes,” “An Ocean Between The Waves,” “Eyes To The Wind,” “In Reverse” — have become constants in War On Drugs setlists, and appropriately form the core of Live Drugs. But this show might very well feature some of the greatest versions of those tunes; at the very least, it’s hard to imagine them being played any better than this. Lost In The Dream garnered The War On Drugs all sorts of “rock savior” hype, and you can feel that excitement carry over to this sold-out show at a historic rock venue. The lineup expanded again this tour, with guitarist Anthony LaMarca and saxophonist Jon Natchez finally stepping in to complete the modern Drugs lineup. (Drummer Charlie Hall also returned to the fold, bringing his bombastic musicianship and excitable stage presence.) But the highlight here is Granduciel fully cutting loose his guitar on especially long versions of “Under The Pressure,” “Come To The City,” and “Eyes To The Wind,” each of which tops 10 minutes. Absolutely essential.
Not quite as epic as the Troubadour show, but that might very well be intentional. The raw early-tour energy of that gig has given way to the well-oiled assurance of a road-tested unit. The result is a performance that is a little more polished, with Granduciel not quite soloing as long as he did in Los Angeles. Depending on your perspective, that might not be a good thing. On the other hand, the power and focus of this lineup — which by now had seamlessly integrated the new members, to the point of making it difficult to remember what this band used to look like — really shines here. This is where The War On Drugs really starts to resemble the band you hear on Live Drugs.
About two weeks before the release of A Deeper Understanding, The War On Drugs played this special “micro show” for a Twin Cities radio station that functions as an almost “unplugged” performance. While still technically electric, this brief but exceedingly lovely set is about as stripped back as they ever get. (At one point, Granduciel promises that “we’ll have a few more pieces of gear” when the band returns to the area for a regular concert a few months later.) The vibe is mellow and introspective, a far cry from the “big rock” sound of the Deeper Understanding tour. But this proves ideal for that album’s ballads — the breathtaking take of “You Don’t Have To Go” is my all-time favorite version of that song — as well as their cover of Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like A Martyr,” which also appears on Live Drugs.
There’s nothing quite like the buzz you get from a band at the start of the tour, when the material is fresh and life on the road isn’t quite so exhausting. But there’s also something special about a tour closer, when you can feel a band exhaling and letting it rip one last time before heading home for a break. The latter is the case with this show, which concluded the initial leg of the Deeper Understanding tour. Fans of the jammier side of The War On Drugs will rejoice over long-ish versions of “Under The Pressure” and “Eyes To The Wind,” as well as a killer cover of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” that concludes the encore with a mind-melting 13-minute take of “Thinking Of A Place.”
One of the last concerts before lockdown, and therefore one of last War On Drugs gigs for the foreseeable future. It’s tempting to analyze — perhaps overanalyze — the setlist for clues as to what the next studio album will sound like. For instance, is it significant that the first three songs are from Slave Ambient, including the greatly missed “Come To The City,” which disappeared during the Deeper Understanding era? Maybe … after all, the new song, “Ocean Of Darkness,” performed on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon did hearken to that period. But mostly, this is a pleasure to play because it’s the most recent snapshot we have of this band. Here’s hoping for many more great War On Drugs gigs in the near future.
Live Drugs is out November 20 via Super High Quality. Get it here.