Live Review: The War on Drugs

By Tony Inglis
Barrowlands, Glasgow, 9 November 2017

One sure fire way to avoid the #dadrock backlash is to be extremely good at what you do. The War on Drugs have so far been immune from the criticisms that plague other all white, male guitar bands of the moment because their brand of arena-ready revivalist rock is the very best and, at the Barrowlands, Glasgow’s iconic music venue, which frontman Adam Granduciel has made no secret of wanting to play, the reasons for this are on display in their most grandiose form.

On the first of a sold out two night stint, showing how much of a sleeper hit the Philadelphia band’s windswept, soul-shaking music has become, Granduciel and his backing band of extremely talented musicians put on a display of wondrous showmanship.

Credit: Shawn Brackbill

It is often easy to slip into meaningless superlatives when describing the music Granduciel has been able to produce. Instead, that music is so evocative, it is easier to describe how it makes you feel and what it makes you think of, rather than the music itself: starlit night drives, 80s movies, sun-kissed coastal gliding. Basically, very fast forward motion. The music is exhilarating; the arrangements complex and filled to bursting.

The night opens with just this kind of push – the twinkling synths of ‘Holding On’ feel like a plane coming into land as the band take the stage in the dark. With the crack of the first snare, the beat kicks in and we’re strapped in for a ride.

Credit: Shawn Brackbill

The War on Drugs have tunes that rip aplenty: ‘An Ocean in Between the Waves’, ‘Red Eyes’, ‘Baby Missiles’, ‘Under the Pressure’, ‘Nothing to Find’. All of them get a run out tonight, packed with drum fills, multiple guitar solos and roiling synths.

Granduciel has gained a reputation as something of an obsessive, perfectionist studio wizard, hidden away as a hermit for months, polishing off his gleaming sounds. It can be easy to forget amongst the splendour of his production that he is an incredible guitarist. Transplanted from studio to stage, his playing takes precedence. He is technically ingenious, but physically unflashy, and it is a real joy to watch.

Granduciel isn’t a man of many words. He and his band churn out hit after hit, only stopping for a quick note of gratitude. Even the slower songs, such as ‘Thinking of a Place’, a stand out from their newest album A Deeper Understanding, which bring the tempo down somewhat, but not the bubbling atmosphere, are grand and sweeping. Granduciel’s guitar playing may be a visual treat, but actually it is when he whips out a harmonica that the crowd show their appreciation most.

This kind of music may seem ill-fitted to our forward-thinking times and painfully uncool (the crowd skews older and male) but Granduciel has been able to traverse the shaky ground his music walks by creating something that is at once nostalgic and original, full of emotion and personality. And when played live, it is a thrilling experience. Given the option, I would have come straight back the next night to witness it all over again.

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