Before we get into the meat and bones of tonight’s show, there’s a trio of points to get out of the way – the bread and butter, let’s say. Firstly, ‘The War on Drugs’ is a standout and highly memorable name for a band. Secondly, low-fi notable, Kurt Vile, who released one of the albums of 2011 in Smoke Ring For My Halo, is a former member. And thirdly, but by no means any less significant, Vile’s former cohorts also released last year a record of supreme craftsmanship. Its name: Slave Ambient.
As the Philadelphia four piece take to the stage in somewhat modest fashion, an odd musky smell, reminiscent of old foisty paperbacks, hangs in the air. Perhaps it’s testament to the seemingly smarter-than-your-average crowd that has assembled: there’s a spate of spectacles and bald heads across the room, and the fact that the venue isn’t crowded out with young Kens and Barbies perhaps tells you something about the band we’re here to see. This is music which is cerebral, contemplative and evocative.
In spite of Slave Ambient’s critical success, it’s the acoustic jangles of Buenos Aires Beach from 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues which gets things underway with a smattering of modern-day Americana. A fitting opener, delicious lines like ‘So let’s speak of the past / In the future perfect tense / Of places we will go’ give the crowd plenty to chew on.
Yet it’s not long before we’re served our next course of goodness, as frontman Adam Granduciel slings his Fender over his shoulder and ploughs into the Springsteen-esque assault that is Baby Missiles, the extended harmonica solo drifting, like the smoke from a trans-American steam train, into every nook, cranny, crack and crevice aboard the Thekla vessel.
Where the band really excel, however, is in their capacity to forge songs of a melancholic flavour, that are somehow imbued with a sense of optimism, defiance and resolution. Swirling synths, repetitive drum phrases and lugubrious guitars saturated in reverb convene at the more accessible verges of krautrock – a reflective place which invariably pulls you towards thoughts abandon: the chances missed, the chances blown, the regrets… well, regretted. Yet the double-time skip of the drumbeats, garnished with the occasional splash of cymbals, combine with Granduciel’s ability to pick out warm notes to serve up a sound which is at once ruminative, dreamlike and strangely reassuring. A kind of ambrosia.
Across an extended set which clocks in at over an hour and a half, it’s the delectably languorous album companions Best Night and Brothers that rightly enjoy the biggest receptions of the night, while Arms Like Boulders showcases a more acerbic side to Granduciel’s penmanship: with gnarled delivery, vivid imagery of shoulders like cliffs, and storytelling lines of driving up Route 101, the song could easily have been torn straight from a musty old Dylan songbook (something the crowd wouldn’t be dissatisfied with, we’re sure).
High-octane it was perhaps never going to be; engrossing it certainly was. So are The War on Drugs as good live as their name is original? For our money, they’re better, and among the best we’ve seen so far this year.
As featured in Crack magazine: http://crackmagazine.net//article/601/the-war-on-drugs/