There were three stars of the Dell Music Center on the last night of summer on Thursday.
For starters was the War on Drugs: The Philadelphia band fronted by guitarist Adam Granduciel were playing just the third tour date behind A Deeper Understanding, their justly acclaimed shimmering new album that’s sure to turn up at the top of many year-end lists. The album is very much a product of Granduciel’s painstaking attention-to-detail approach in the recording studio, so the question was: How would the new songs sounds live?
Second was Connor Barwin, the former Philadelphia Eagles defensive end who spent the evening 3,000-plus miles away wearing a bright-yellow uniform playing for the Los Angeles Rams. (He got credit for three tackles and a sack in a 41-39 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.)
The show was the fourth annual benefit for Barwin’s Make the World Better Foundation, which takes a hands-on approach to rebuilding playgrounds and rec centers throughout the city. And though Barwin wasn’t in attendance, his presence and positive energy were felt everywhere.
His wife, Laura, and Eagles center Jason Kelce introduced a video message from Barwin thanking attendees — the event was expected to raise $150,000, boosted to a quarter million once Barwin kicked his own cash in — and urging all social media posts to be tagged #buildabetterPHL. Granduciel dedicated the band’s stately cover of Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally like a Martyr” to Barwin’s mother, Margaret, after meeting her working the T-shirt stand, and he donned a Barwin Eagles jersey for the encores.
The third star? The Dell itself. It was a big night for the city-owned Strawberry Mansion amphitheater built in 1935 (then known as the Robin Hood Dell East) as a summer home for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where stars including Judy Garland and Paul Robeson performed.
The 6,000-capacity space underwent a recent $7 million renovation, and it hosts an annual old-school R&B concert series in the summer that this year included Erykah Badu and Sheila E. Those shows draw a loyal, predominantly African American audience.
But if you ask most rock fans what or where the Dell is, you’ll be met by quizzical looks. So Thursday night was “Welcome to the Dell, White People” night, with many if not most concertgoers laying eyes on the open-air space for the first time.
What they saw and heard once they got there — and they were stunned to find that lawn parking was free — sounded great.
The show opened with a set full of songs of sweet longing by Land of Talk, the Canadian group that may have been the first rock band ever to play at the Dell. (Some long-in-the-tooth concertgoers have hazy memories of seeing acts like the James Gang, Iron Butterfly, and Philly band American Dream at the Dell in the early ’70s, but those shows were unconfirmed at press time.)
By the time the six members of the War on Drugs took the stage, the Dell’s comfortable concrete bowl was packed, revealing a space with clean sight lines and terrific, crisp acoustics. The room has no roof or balcony, and the amphitheater gently slopes, so the seats at the rear of the venue are quite a distance from the stage, where the now-in-the-big-time Philly band was flanked by two video screens.
Considering they just hit the road this week, the band sounded particularly impressive and tight, in near-mid-tour form. Which is not to say that majestic, infinitely patient songs like A Deeper Understanding’s “Strangest Thing,” which featured a stretched out, not-a-note-wasted solo by Granduciel, were fastidious re-creations of their studio recordings.
Instead, Deeper songs like “Pain” and “Holding On” played out as living, breathing interpretations of their recorded versions, with Dave Hartley’s fluid bass playing, Jon Natchez’s rumbling sax, and, in particular, Robbie Bennett’s keys all featured prominently as Granduciel’s majestic and meticulous soundscapes came out in the open under the evening sky.
Granduciel took time to credit and thank Barwin on numerous occasions and pretended the band would follow their Zevon cover with the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey.” Instead of laying on the dad rock that heavily though, they played Deeper’s anxiety-ridden opener, “Up All Night,” complete with bursts of noise and distortion, a reminder that no matter how elegantly constructed they are, War on Drugs songs don’t always go down so easy.
The focus was on the self-examining songs from the new album — “Pull me close and let me hold you in, give me a deeper understanding of who I am,” Granduciel sang in “Pain” — but the band did not give its back catalog short shrift. The show gathered momentum with “An Ocean Between the Waves,” from 2014’s Lost in the Dream, and really got cooking with that album’s enveloping “Red Eyes.”
After noting earlier how many friends the band had in the house, Granduciel kicked off the three-song encore that brought the two-hour show to a close by playing acoustic guitar on the very Dylany “Arms Like Boulders,” reaching all the way to the band’s debut 2008 Wagonwheel Blues debut album. It was a reminder of how far the War on Drugs have come on an all-for-a-good-cause night that closed out the Philadelphia summer concert season in style while opening up new possibilities for one of the city’s oldest music venues.