This was shaping up to be one of the most conflicted gigs I’d been to in a while. Was I watching the Emperor’s New Clothes or a new blissful update of classic American heartland rock? Was it a Status Quo-like adherence to a formula or case of taking something familiar and honing it to perfection? In the end, I’ll plump for the latter.
The War on Drugs is essentially Adam Granduciel as singer, songwriter, guitarist with a regular band alongside him. Our Adam is something of a reluctant front man. In a recent Guardian interview, he stated that he wished he could “Bono it up a bit” and has a desire to stand to the left of the stage. He remained front and centre though. His interaction with the crowd was limited to the quickest possible emission of the words “thank you” whilst taking hold of one of the endless supply of gorgeous guitars that his guitar tech handed him. Surrounded by a crescent array of effects pedals, much of the performance was head down, wringing long solos for minutes on end. His vocal delivery is nasal and he constantly stands almost side on to the crowd, wanting to make himself disappear. His plaid shirt flaps around, his long unkempt hair hanging down.
It shouldn’t work as a package.
But this reductive exercise in taking the US mainstream musical trope brilliantly distills all of the impurities away and re-presents it enhanced with glacial ambient electronics. The vision is such an attractive cliche (long open highways, shadowy figures in doorways) that it lifts the spirits on a cold Autumn evening. The dynamics are superb and the music crisp, delivered without an ounce of fat. The band are aware of their shortcomings in terms of stage presence and use intelligent lighting and back projecting video screens to enhance the audience’s experiences.
The rhythm section are solid as a rock, albeit drummer Charlie Hall is so metronomic he could potentially sue Granduciel for RSI in years to come. He reminded me of Springsteen’s Mighty Max Weinberg in his ability to drive a band from behind a relatively small kit. Keyboards and sax complete the musical backdrop. The line-up aren’t shy of their influences. Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, the E-Street band all come to mind. Last year they reached the perfect intersection of their influences and own identity when they covered the Grateful Dead’s “Touch Of Grey”.
By the end of the evening, Granduciel had won the crowd over. He was visibly touched at being front and centre in the huge environs of Ally Pally. Giving up a career as a carpenter, his success has arrived relatively late in life. His dad is 85 and was originally non-plussed at his son’s career choice. He gets it now and he’s joined him on tour following a quadruple bypass operation. Granduciel is glad of this late career bonding opportunity with his father but continues to be beset by doubt. He’s suffered anxiety attacks but playing music and making a success of it has helped.
The last three songs of the set were sensational. “Red Eyes” from 2014’s “Lost In The Dream” was the energetic loosener. “Thinking Of A Place”, this year’s lead off single was just beautiful, stretching out endlessly. The band ramped up and down the closing “Under The Pressure” to perfection, heightening the drama.
It isn’t innovative and Granduciel doesn’t shy away from this. But when the ride is this good, it really doesn’t matter.
And if Michael and Emily Eavis are looking for someone to play as the sun goes down on the Pyramid Stage in 2019, they should give Granduciel a ring. It would be a marriage made in heaven.