Published Apr 15, 2014Adam Granduciel, the frontman and primary songwriter for the War on Drugs, is the kind of guy who knows exactly when to start a guitar solo. His voice melds organically with his lead lines in a way that creates a whole new instrument, reaching highs and expressing emotions that neither one could alone. It's something that only a handful of rock guitarists have achieved — Mark Knopfler comes to mind, and even Bruce Springsteen, whose lead guitar work is generally under-recognized.
There was a moment in the War on Drugs' sold out show at the Horseshoe Tavern last night when it seemed as if Granduciel was levitating right in front of us. It was in the song "Red Eyes," when the band built a crescendo and Granduciel let out a yell, taking the music to a new place with a blistering but tasteful guitar solo.
The War on Drugs have always known how to write a killer song, but they've hit on something special with their new album, Lost in the Dream, as was abundantly clear at last night's performance. The new songs built and morphed around subtly composed, but eminently listenable, melodies, washed in the band's trademark reverb and watery tremolo. Granduciel stood flanked by his bandmates on keys, bass and drums, as well as a touring saxophonist, who made for an airy complement to Granduciel's guitar playing. They rolled confidently through older songs like "Baby Missiles" and "Comin' Through," but it was the sense of exploration on their newer songs that really hammered home the band's greatness and their potential for future work.
The crowd at the show was well aware of that potential. Some bands are too big for the Horseshoe Tavern, but play there anyway because they like the vibe — think Death From Above 1979, the Dead Weather or, most famously, the Rolling Stones. Other bands are just happy to be on such a legendary stage. Last night, the audience had the rare treat of seeing a band passing from the second category to the first. When they toured for 2011's Slave Ambient, the War on Drugs played much smaller venues and didn't always fill them up, but now, they're looking at two sold Toronto out shows in a row. Where will they play next time they pass through town? Whatever happens, the room was filled with people who were very happy to be there with a band that was outwardly ecstatic to be connecting with so many listeners.
Granduciel's stage presence was about as breezy and chilled out as his guitar tones; at one point, after praising Toronto, he even handed a cold beer to an audience member. This attitude was a contrast to the themes of depression and reckoning he explores on Lost in the Dream, and it served as a necessary complement to those songs, telling listeners that he wants to get through all of this together. Tunes like "Eyes to the Wind" and "Under the Pressure" came off as even more cathartic than on record.
The band came back for three separate encores, finally closing with a cover of John Lennon's "Mind Games." An in-your-face song with big, open major chords, it clashed a bit with the rest of the night's songs, offering an unintentional reminder that the War on Drugs write nuanced, subtle songs that give even the most gilded artists a run for their money.