Easygoing Vibes, Explosive Force: The War on Drugs makes a powerful homecoming at The Dell for a good cause - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
The War on Drugs | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

When it was announced that Connor Barwin’s fourth annual Make The World Better Foundation fundraising concert was being held at the Dell Music Center and that The War On Drugs would headline, questions arose. For some, the question was “What the heck is The Dell?” and for those familiar with the city-run venue in Fairmount, the question was “Why The Dell?” The answer to the latter is that the venue is looking to throw in an occasional rock or country band to their normal summer mix of funk, R&B and soul music. Based on the crowd who entered The Dell “ooh”ing “ahh”ing, the venue most likely will not have trouble filling seats for these outlier acts.

The War on Drugs | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Last night wasn’t just a beautiful and serene night for sitting under the stars in Fairmount, it was a beautiful night to give a little towards former Eagles outside linebacker Connor Barwin’s park renovation project Make The World Better — Eagles center Jason Kelce told the crowd that $150,000 had been raised for the foundation so far, and money was still coming in from Steve Powers-designed posters and shirts — and it was a gorgeous night to hear some mellow, soul-searching tunes courtesy of The War on Drugs. The band has not played Philly since their Tower Theatre show in March of 2015.

The War on Drugs | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Since then singer and guitarist Adam Granduciel has become more confident as a band leader. Obviously his guitar skills have always been impressive but now his physical presence is that of the leader of a stadium act. The rest of the band was on point as well, particularly the rhythm section of longtime Philly musicians-about-town Dave Hartley on bass and Charlie Hall on drums. The War on Drugs seem entirely comfortable in their role as major players — which, for Philly bands often considered “second rate” on the national radar, this is a feat.

The War on Drugs | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The tone of the night was a mix of easygoing vibes mixed with moments of explosive force. At times though the mood was a little too plaintive; none of the burners from Slave Ambient were featured, while songs like “Under the Pressure,” and “Arms Like Boulders,” were welcome excursions compared with the slow momentum within the rest of the set. “Red Eyes” brought the entire amphitheater to its feet, but the slow and low “Knocked Down” that immediately followed did what its title implies, putting the breaks on that forward-momentum.

The War on Drugs | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Knowing what their latest album, A Deeper Understanding sounds like and what the album is about — the depths of love and inward self-reflection — their audience should not be too surprised by this. But it’s normally nice to hear something like “Baby Missiles” mixed into the gauzy soundscape the band creates live. That said, a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally A Martyr” from Excitable Boy was a lovely surprise, and a stunning “Eyes to The Wind” scorched over seven expansive minutes, bringing a balance of sublime tones into a rousing conclusion.

Land of Talk | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Openers Land Of Talk mixed searing guitars, Mick Fleetwood beats and even had a French horn as accompaniment. Lead singer and guitarist Elizabeth Powell put her entire body into Talk’s songs, throwing her guitar over her shoulder and playing with feedback. The songs were an excellent match with The War on Drugs and their set made me and my friends wish for a Saddle Creek touring show where we could just bask in the power of that label’s bands (ahem, Hop Along and Big Thief).

Below, check out a gallery of photos, the setlist and fan-shot video of last night’s show.

In Chains
An Ocean in Between the Waves
Strangest Thing
Holding On
Red Eyes
Knocked Down
Nothing to Find
Accidentally Like a Martyr (Warren Zevon cover)
Up All Night
You Don’t Have to Go
Eyes to the Wind
Arms Like Boulders

Under the Pressure
Clean Living
In Reverse

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