Adam Granduciel is a musical genius. But The War On Drugs’ singer, guitarist, songwriter, producer, and sonic mastermind is not a natural showman. There’s little time for pleasantries, just a few hurried “thank you’s” and one “I’m so psyched to be here”. There’s no waving of arms or pointing at the crowd, so even coming to the front of the stage during one of his fluid guitar solos is completely out of the question.
Granduciel’s obviously aware of his self-restraint on stage, telling the Guardian just a few weeks ago he wishes he could “Bono it up a little bit”. He needn’t worry, the audience don’t care. Nobody went to see Pink Floyd expecting David Gilmour to do backflips. Dire Straits didn’t sell out stadiums on the strength of Mark Knopfler’s stand-up comedy routines.
The War On Drugs are simply continuing that tradition of putting all the focus on what made them popular in the first place: the songs. And, with the backing of a five-piece band including a saxophonist and multiple keyboard players, Granduciel is able to recapture the obsessive detail of his meticulous studio recordings.
Set opener In Chains, from latest album A Deeper Understanding, sets the tone, the earnest Dylanesque vocals swirling through ambient passages of rippling guitars, droning saxes, a haunting piano melody, and lush synths, all anchored by a driving rhythm. Baby Missiles, one of three tracks from 2011’s Slave Ambient, hits the accelerator with its incessant beat and jangled guitars before another new song, Pain, finds Granduciel on familiar ground: despairing lyrics and blurry, dreamy soundscapes, cut through by a guitar solo drenched in pain.
It’s a sweet spot he returns to throughout a near flawless two-hour set. The tempestuous An Ocean In Between The Waves, off 2014’s breakthrough release Lost In The Dream, adds a ragged, growling Les Paul workout. Eyes To The Wind recasts it as a country rock shuffle. And the 12-minute epic Thinking Of A Place (with the band bathed in trippy ‘60s lighting, casting silhouettes against a white backdrop) adds a psychedelic haze. It also gets the night’s most visceral guitar solo with Granduciel for once making it look less than effortless as he wrestles the emotions from his Gretsch White Falcon.
But it’s not all anguish from the band who’ve graduated from KOKO to Alexandra Palace in the space of three years. Holding On totally swings, in no small part thanks to Charlie Hall’s drumming. The irresistible, soaring melody of Red Eyes sparks a loud, yet respectful, hum-along from the packed Ally Pally, while a vibrant Under The Pressure must be the first song with a sax solo since Baker Street to elicit such glee from an audience. And as set closer Burning shimmers to life as a gleaming ‘80s Springsteen anthem, the swaying audience clearly don’t care that the man singing it isn’t more like Bono.
Armed with the songs, a classy Floydian light show, two no-frills video screens, and their unrivalled musical talents, the last thing The War On Drugs need is a distracting show-off.
The War On Drugs live at Alexandra Palace, 14 November 2017. Photographs taken at Portsmouth Guildhall, 15 November 2017.
Words by: Nils Van Der Linden. Nils runs the blog graffitipunctuated.com covering live music in London.
Photography by: Simon Reed. Simon has his own Music Photography website Musical Pictures: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk/