With the slow burning enthusiasm that has grown for the work of former War On Drugs member Kurt Vile, interest has also now grown in his parent band. Suddenly, The War on Drugs are the word of mouth buzz band of the moment and this London show is a hot ticket. Listening to their current album, Slave Ambient, it’s easy to see their crossover potential. It’s not purely because of a band name so screamingly obvious that it’s hard to believe it has not been used before. There’s a lovely brightness to the treated guitars, and a rambling, Dylanesque quality to Adam Granduciel’s vocal phrasing. For the most part, the songs are simple but effective.
In London, tonight, the band are supported by the remarkable Alexander Tucker. In Dorwytch, Tucker has made one of the finest albums of the year, a disorientating, heady combination of avant-garde folk and electronic manipulation that claims its own territory with clarity and confidence. In live performance, Tucker can be a little challenging, and tonight is no exception. He eschews playing any live guitar. His vocals are listless and buried beneath swathes of fuzz and drones. The overall texture is dense and the volume is punishingly loud. Sometimes the nuances of Tucker’s music, already fragile, are lost within the intensity of his improvising. Yet, there’s something admirable and maybe even compelling in the uncompromising nature of his performance. It is not easy on the ear, but yet it’s also hard not to become immersed in his unusual, sometimes fearsome sound world.
The War On Drugs also struggle a little in trying to convert the detailed textures and sonic effects of the Slave Ambient album into live performance. The line-up of the group has changed so much over the years that it’s hard to keep up with who is officially part of it. A touring keyboardist certainly helps with capturing some of the band’s characteristic swathes of sound, but what really emerges from tonight’s performance is the taut commitment and discipline of the group’s driving rhythm section. As a result, the overriding perception of the group’s live performance is of a very confident and capable four square rock band. The transparent Neil Young influence of 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues is possibly a better reference point for the band’s live sound.
Highlights from Slave Ambient include a wonderfully rolling, engaged version of I Was There and a palpably intense Black Water Falls. Appropriately, the generous set also reaches back into the band’s history, with a spectacular version of the patiently, gracefully unfolding Arms Like Boulders and the shimmering splendour of the closing Buenos Aires Beach.
Overall, the performance is a little one-paced and dynamically one-dimensional. A few more contrasts would have been beneficial. The presence of Braindead Collective founder Sebastian Reynolds on saxophone suggests a desire to push into different territory, although his playing is sadly a little obscured by a murky sound mix. Still, what the band do achieve is a very impressive contemporary update of classic songwriting tropes. They have a loyal and growing audience for whom the songs are obviously treasures. Even more pleasing is the obvious fact that Adam Granduciel obviously has a lot of conviction and enthusiasm for his own material. Yet they don’t quite have the showmanship, vigour and abandon that, say, Arcade Fire brought when they first performed in the UK.