Somewhere in the latter half of “Eyes to the Wind,” a song from the War on Drugs’ 2014 breakthrough album “Lost in the Dream,” everything clicked. Band leader Adam Granduciel took his standard few stagger-steps back from the microphone toward the drummer and locked his guitar groove in step with the swirling sonic haze of his five bandmates, as they soared up to another level together.
It’s hard to pinpoint or define these moments, but when they happen, everybody knows it — including the audience, which responded with rapturous applause when the six-minute song reached its conclusion. “That was awesome,” a voice in the crowd exclaimed behind me, and indeed it was.
Granduciel knew it too. “Finally got warmed up!” he remarked with a smile to the crowd at ACL Live as the War on Drugs taped “Austin City Limits” for the first time. He seemed aware that for most of the set, the War on Drugs had been searching for but not quite finding its center. The focus was squarely on “Lost in the Dream”: The band performed nine of the album’s 10 songs, some of them in chunks that followed the sequence of the record.
“Eyes to the Wind” was one of those, coming on the heels of “An Ocean in Between the Waves” and “Disappearing,” a trio of tunes that anchor the midsection of “Lost in the Dream.” It’s a splendid album, deserving of its place atop many year-end lists, and so perhaps it made sense that the band felt most fully engaged when it was following the record’s lead.
The momentum took a while to build. After opening the set with “Under the Pressure,” which also opens “Lost in the Dream,” the War on Drugs took its only two excursions off the record, playing “Baby Missiles” (which appeared on both the 2010 EP “Future Weather” and the 2011 LP “Slave Ambient”) and “Arms Like Boulders,” the first track on the band’s first LP (2008’s “Wagonwheel Blues”). Those tunes helped fill out the picture of how the War on Drugs got to where they are today: There’s a shared aesthetic with Scottish songwriter Mike Scott’s band the Waterboys, and it’s no surprise that the two bands have apparently struck up a kinship in recent years.
The War on Drugs’ sound is generally heavier and less traditional than that of Scott’s crew, as Granduciel’s material leans significantly on keyboard atmospherics. On some songs, band members Robbie Bennett, Anhony LaMarca and Jon Natchez all played keys, though the latter two switched to guitar and horns, respectively, for many numbers. Bassist David Hartley and drummer Charlie Hall solidly anchored the low-end, with Hartley occasionally contributing excellent harmonies, though the band’s vocal identity rests squarely with Granduciel’s high-pitched and very personal delivery.
As gratifying as the apex of “Eyes to the Wind” was eight songs into the set, soon enough it was gone. The feverish “Red Eyes” and the album-closing “In Reverse” kept up some of the intensity before Granduciel shifted gears with “Suffering,” a slow-tempo number that served as a bring-them-down-gently finale.
Their fans weren’t quite ready to let them go. The War on Drugs had played for 65 minutes, and the crowd clamored for an encore, but the lights went up after a couple of minutes. If the intent was to leave them wanting more, it worked. That said, the high points should boil down to a strong half-hour “Austin City Limits” segment when the performance airs later this year.
1. Under the Pressure
2. Baby Missiles
3. Arms Like Boulders
5. Lost in the Dream
6. An Ocean in Between the Waves
8. Eyes to the Wind
9. Red Eyes
10. In Reverse