With a slow-burning magnetism that dares you to look away as it imperceptibly builds up a critical mass to blossom into a payoff of mega proportions, any individual song by The War On Drugs could be seen as a microcosm of the Philadelphia band’s career. They had been pootling along nicely, two albums under their belt on top indie label Secretly Canadian, before last year’s third, Lost In The Dream, saw the horizon suddenly open up like the road trip daydreams conjured by their music. Their swirling, melancholic-optimistic mix of Dylan influences and Springsteen-like intensity, the krautrock inspired driving rhythms that tunnel under and through frontman Adam Granduciel’s sparse songwriting and colourful guitar playing—with his senses sharpened by a spell of personal turmoil and growth, he channelled it all into an immersive new take on Americana that captured imaginations and topped many a 2014 Best Of list.
The Brighton Dome is about four times the size of Concorde 2 where they played only seven months ago. There is a definite core of old fans among the buzzy flavour-of-the-month crowd, and when Granduciel addresses the audience and talks about the city, it seems to be with real familiarity and affection. (This hunch is strengthened by the man next to me, who tells me the band visit his vintage shop every time they are in town and never fail to give him a spot on the guestlist.)
With their vintage garms and dustbowl charms, slick is not a word readily associated with The War On Drugs. But there is a hint of something in the air tonight, a Kraftwerk-esque sheen to proceedings, as they emerge with a businesslike stride, amid a guttural synth drone, into a stage backdrop of crisp, minimalist lines: an simple arc of overlapping stage flats in reflective white, ready to bat around a kaleidoscope of neon lighting.
The first track from Lost In The Dream, ‘Under The Pressure’, is just as rousing a live opener, and sparks fly from the moment the fizzy intro gives way to the climbing piano riff and Granduciel’s keening vocal. That krautrock gloss peeps through the mist a little later when a lone keyboard hammers a rhythmic one-note transition into ‘Baby Missiles’, a favourite from the Slave Ambient album, before the dust-blown open highway takes over once more and the loose, wolf-like howl of the chorus sweeps around the grand dome of the venue, lingering on the air.
The already alluring sound is enriched and distinguished when the synth player turns and picks up a huge baritone sax – its meaty voice adding that direct, connective energy that brass does so well – and later a trumpet. Granduciel’s haunting harmonica threads its breathy way through many numbers, too, and his brilliantly expressive guitar playing takes as much of a lead role in many songs as his vocals do. To close out the already epic ‘An Ocean Between The Waves’, he ascends through a series of linked guitar solos before extinguishing it all in a squally crunch of distortion.
The latest album’s smouldering mission song ‘Eyes To The Wind’ leads into its big single, ‘Red Eyes’, an extended version of this already hopelessly addictive song serving up deeper lulls and higher highs, Granduciel’s soaring chorus riff opening out into one of the gig’s many wailing, freewheeling solos, slippy and weave-y as a waterslide. This music’s emotive power exerts itself again as we are dumped with a thud into the doomy and metallic intro to ‘In Reverse’, his silent band still as statues to preserve the atmosphere until their cue to join him, at which point the tension bursts.
After almost an hour and a half, they could be forgiven for eschewing an encore, but they come back for an amazing four more songs – including the shroomy float of ‘Suffering’ and the country twanging of ‘Comin’ Through’, the latter as a result of an animated audience vote – which, in The War On Drugs’ language, means another 30-odd minutes of prime showtime.
The War On Drugs inspire patience and reward it beyond all hopes. At points during a song it seems they might string it out for ever, but nothing is superfluous, they always turn out to be building something. And as their sold out shows always prove, if you build it they will come.