The War on Drugs Set Their Own Strange Pace in Toronto Echo Beach, August 28

The War on Drugs Set Their Own Strange Pace in Toronto Echo Beach, August 28
Photo: Chris Gee
Late summer evenings don't get more idyllic than this: beach air that's warm but not in the slightest bit muggy, carnival rides at the CNE glowing neon just next door, and the War on Drugs workin' on their night moves on an outdoor stage. This show had originally been scheduled to take place over two nights in February, before it was postponed due to pandemic lockdowns; this blissful summer night took some of the sting out of the wait.

War on Drugs mastermind Adam Granduciel is a masterful arranger and a questionable song sequencer (case in point: the strange choice to kick off last year's I Don't Live Here Anymore with the sleepy ballad "Living Proof"). This manifested in some peculiar setlist pacing, such as the when the seven-piece band began the show with "Old Skin," a sombre ballad buried in the back half of their recent album.

For a group known for lavish, studio-crafted soundscapes, they did a remarkably good job at replicating the sonic textures of their albums. With an array of synths and guitars, and keyboardist Jon Natchez sometimes busting out a gigantic baritone sax, every heartland anthem was draped in a haze of dreamy psychedelia; Granduciel shredded his way through a rotation of sick axes (a sunburst Jazzmaster, a white Strat, a Gretsch White Falcon), his solos kept at a relatively low volume so as to melt into the noise rather than truly stand out. The light show was relatively simple, but the illuminated rows of bulbs were effectively used, looking like little lasers during synth passages and moodily backlighting the musicians during their extended vamps.

It took a while for the set to truly get going, but it hit a mid-set high point with "Harmonia's Dream," which began with very "Baba O'Riely" keyboards before surging into a relentless, fist-pumping groove. The energy only went up from there, with signature tune "Red Eyes" garnering possibility the night's most euphoric reaction from the fans — who were a little older than your average audience for a 2010s band, and filled with dudes wearing guitar T-shirts. (The guy in front of me had a Gibson ES-335 semi-hollowbody on his lock screen.)

The iffy pacing persisted throughout the night, with energetic highlights often followed by mellower comedowns — like when the aforementioned "Red Eyes" got lost in the dream of "Lost in the Dream," or how the feverish build of "Victim" fell victim to the plodding "Strangest Thing." All lovely songs, but they prevented the momentum from ever building to match the beauty of the material.

Granduciel, clad in a shapeless green T-shirt and with his long hair hanging past his shoulders, was a magnanimous frontman, profusely thanking the audience and introducing band members with the gusto of that "let's get ready to rumble" ring announcer. (He also dedicated "I Don't Wanna Wait" to local saxophonist Joseph Shabason, who has contributed to the group in the past.) Granduciel's Dylanesque vocals were in fine form, and he howled out the climactic lyrics of "Under the Pressure" in a particularly majestic, high-energy crescendo.

After that, the cinematic "I Don't Live Here Anymore" was the perfectly triumphant, Springsteenian set closer — except it wasn't the set closer, because it was followed by the mid-tempo "Occasional Rain," which was drop-dead gorgeous but decidedly less energetic, and felt like an afterthought compared to the songs that came before it.

For the encore, the sweeping "Thinking of a Place" started slow but swelled with bittersweet arpeggios, once again setting the ideal vibe to send fans home with; yet again, this was followed by a mid-tempo number, "In Chains," which ended the night with a lack of closure — not buzzing with energy, and not quite comfortably mellow. As the fans filed off the sand of Echo Beach and toward the exit, part of the crowd started chanting "Seven Nation Army," seemingly in need of a catharsis that the War on Drugs didn't quite provide.

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