Go to the Youtube video of The War on Drugs’ performing “Holding On”- the lead single to their new album A Deeper Understanding – on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and you’ll find a wonderfully droll top comment, “needs more guitars and keyboards”. It’s not being particularly critical or mean, just simply a humorous observation as no less than five guitarists and three keyboardists join the drummer on the small stage. For this is the place The War on Drugs’ continually skyward career trajectory has reached; ambitious songwriting with a huge sound of meticulously dense layers that fully immerse their adoring listeners. It was this attitude and ambition they brought to Berlin’s (Germany)Tempodrom on November 22 where they played to a 4,000 strong capacity crowd.
“This is a sweet place!” was a frontman and songwriter Adam Granduciel’s succinct assessment of the venue between songs, and reasonably so. Built to echo the circus tent it was originally housed in, Tempodrom’s unique and stunning structure cascades out from above like some enormous tee-pee. A site far better suited to the band’s expansive setup than the cramped stage of that Colbert performance, the band and their equipment sprawled over the stage, lights and visuals glowing and flashing around them. Much has been made of the band’s sound heavily influenced by the highway rock ’n’ roll artists of the 70s and 80s. The likes of Springsteen, Dylan and Dire Straits are names thrown about liberally, and they looked every inch like rock stars of that era as their modern take on vintage sounds translated itself to the live stage.
A man of few words, that was almost all Granduciel had to say all night, instead letting the songs and musicianship do the talking. From the opening piano line of the gorgeous ‘In Chains’ – a quintessential War on Drugs rocker from the new record that kicked off the night – to the final applause, the evening was an exercise in the mastery over the reverb-drenched atmosphere, momentum and restraint that has characterized the band’s work to date. The distinctive pulse of the drums took on explosive proportions as they drove songs ever forward, the layers of guitars and synths played amongst each other with subtle ease even as they threatened to drown each other in floods of sound during the monumental builds. Having been playing together awhile now, it’s difficult to overstate just how tight these guys are. The level of control over rhythm, balance and tone on display was seamless and deceptively effortless given the meticulous nature of the songs.
As stage-shy as he is, Granduciel is the obvious star of the show. His array of beautiful guitars on full display as he sunk himself into the comfort of the fretboard, the blistering and clever solos that litter the band’s records taking on new dimensions. Unmistakable moments like the initial lead break in ‘Ocean Between the Waves’ or the repeated riff of ‘Strangest Thing’ stood out, the patterns that have been played countless times in car stereos across the world overlaid with superb improvisation and new takes on familiar lines. No doubt deeply personal songs, the words were barely distinguishable with Granduciel’s Dylan-esque vocals strong and sure but acting as part of the immense soundscapes the band were creating.
Touring for A Deeper Understanding, the new material naturally dominated the set list to a good reception. ‘In Chains’ acted as a perfect tonic for the anticipation of the crowd, with lead singles ‘Pain’ and ‘Holding On’ sustaining the energy. However, of the new tracks, it was the 11-minute epic ‘Thinking of a Place’ that stole the show. Stretched even further, it floated, drifted and entranced the crowd, from the lush opening synths to the gentle harmonica that plays the song out. The impressive catalogue The War on Drugs have built was on display with old favorites ‘Baby Missile’ and ‘Come to the City’ – even ‘Buenos Aires Beach’ of Wagonwheel Blues days – getting their time in the sun. But it was of course the songs of 2014’s masterpiece Lost in the Dream that got the most rapturous reception. ‘Red Eyes’ and ‘Ocean Between the Waves’ played out with inescapable momentum while ‘Under the Pressure’ – a highlight with its infectious hook, thundering drums, bubbling energy and saxophone solos – was simply magnificent.
It was with Lost in the Dream’s soft and restrained title track that the show closed with, the second song in an encore that also featured Slave Ambient’s ‘Come to the City’. A move that felt both deliberate and appropriate. The War on Drugs now find themselves becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, a mantle placed on their shoulders from the quality of the music they have been producing. Now playing for crowds of near stadium size instead of the bars they filled in their early days, it felt like an attempt to hold on to their origins and not become too lost in the dream, as it were. As the final reverb echoed around Tempodrom to huge applause and stamping of feet, it’s clear these guys are slowly taking their place among the peers they have been so consistently compared to. The picture of modern classic rock stars, if such a thing exists, it’s nice to see they’re trying to keep their feet on the ground.
Set List: In Chains, Baby Missiles, Pain, An Ocean Between the Waves, Strangest Thing, Knocked Down, Nothing to Find, Buenos Aires Beach, Red Eyes, Thinking of a Place, Holding On, Under the Pressure, In Reverse
Encore: Come to the City, Lost in the Dream