The War on Drugs Massey Hall, Toronto ON, October 21
Published Oct 22, 2017The narrative surrounding the War on Drugs' recent album, A Deeper Understanding, is that group leader Adam Granduciel is an obsessive studio rat who spent several years weaving intricate, lavish heartland rock tapestries. The question hanging over the band's latest tour, then, was whether this studio perfectionism would translate into a compelling live performance.
Performing as a six-piece, the combo's arrangements were necessarily a little looser and less ornate than the album versions, but this actually turned out to be a good thing. Without as many interlocking overdubs and synths textures, upbeat standouts like "Holding On" and "Nothing to Find" were visceral, straightforward rock songs. On seemingly every song, Granduciel let loose searing guitar solos while his bandmates held down steady grooves with gratifyingly simple rhythms.
This was an excellent rock show, but Granduciel is no rock star. With his long, unkempt hair and baggy flannel shirt, he looked like a normal everydude, and he didn't exude much charisma when offering perfunctory thank-yous and making unfunny cracks about how his guitar tech moved like a cat. The light show, on the other hand, was effective in its simplicity, with curved banks of lights that made the stage look a bit like it was inside of a swirling DNA double helix.
The energy lagged slightly during the ballads towards the end of the two-hour set, and a cover of Warren Zevon's "Accidentally Like a Martyr" seemed unnecessary given that the original tunes were so much better. But any minor missteps were more than redeemed by "Under the Pressure," a pulse-racing thrill-ride live as its ambient interlude swelled into a towering final verse — it was the highlight of the night by far. A couple of songs later, the evening ended with a crowd-pleasing cover of Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane."
Granduciel's tendency to labour over his recordings has translated into some excellent albums. As this night showed, however, his stellar songs will translate even without all of the production bells and whistles.