The War On Drugs: KEMBA Live; Columbus, OH; Friday, February 4, 2022
Fans of the band The War On Drugs’ albums, might be curious how an artist as meticulous as singer/guitarist/songwriter Adam Granduciel is reported to be in preparing his recordings for release, since he’s often described as notoriously precise about, well… everything on his band’s recordings, manages to produce that same sound live. It’s obvious from the release of Live Drugs in 2020, that the band is able to reproduce the sound of their recordings with marked accuracy, but having never seen the band live I was eager to see and hear it for myself. That opportunity presented itself Friday night, notably two days after this year’s most significant ice/snow storm. As the band arrived on stage and prepared their instruments, Granduciel acknowledged the extra effort required to get to the venue as he welcomed the full, standing-room-only audience, but let his native Philadelphia attitude show through when he said, “it wasn’t really that much snow.”
Of course, part of the design in a great many of The War On Drugs’ songs in their repertoire start out soft and then build toward a bigger, bolder climax. Granduciel’s setlist pretty much took that same philosophy into practice for the band’s 2 hour set. Shortly after the seven-piece band hit the stage, they opened with “Old Skin,” from the band’s latest release, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, one of several songs that reveal the influence of Bruce Springsteen in Granduciel’s songwriting. Which moved nicely in “Pain,” from the band’s 2017 release “A Deeper Understanding,” where Granduciel’s voice most recalls the tone and sound of 70’s artist, Al Stewart. Looking at the band’s setlists on this tour, they’ve consistently opened the night with these two sonic palate cleansers, that set the stage for all that is to follow.
Gladuciel played a vintage Les Paul guitar on the opening track, then switched to one of 3 Fender Jaguar’s that he used throughout the evening for the second number, and it was quickly observable how the other six players contributed to the sound as a whole as they kicked into the faster, bigger rock sound of “An Ocean Between the Waves,” from the band’s 2014 release, Lost In the Dream. Robbie Bennett, on the right side of the stage, has two stacks of keyboards and plays the dominant piano parts heard in the mix, but at times there are as many as three others adding keys to the tapestry of sound. Behind him is Jon Natchez, who plays baritone sax and occasionally flugelhorn, that mostly blends into the mix for texture, and in a few special moments as a soloist. On the left side of the stage, Anthony LaMarca plays rhythm guitar, at least half of the evening on acoustic guitar, but also on several electrics if the songs called for it. Behind him and her own keyboard is Eliza Hardy Jones, who’s female voice added nicely the vocal harmonies with Gladuciel and others, she also played acoustic guitar from time to time. On Gladuciel’s right, mid-stage, is bassist David Hartley, the other member of The War On Drugs who’s been in the band since Gladuciel started the group; his especially noteworthy melodic bass lines contribute nicely to the overall sound, while in lockstep with drummer Charlie Hall, a player who appeared to be in the Max Weinberg school of rhythm aces. Together, there are a lot of moving parts, but in makes for a lush, compelling sound throughout.
“Change” was next up, one of the major singles from the new one, with lush keys and strong four part harmonies adding to Gladuciel’s lead vocal, followed by the haunted vibe of “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” again the sound building with a sense of urgency that came through Gladuciel’s solo on a Strat. Then, the third in a row as they appear on the album, “Victim” had sturdy, pounding beat as it built into a driving, intense rocker with plenty of echo in the sound as sax and keys blended and Gladuciel delivered one of his stronger guitar solos of the set so far.
Then, backing away from the faster rock sound, they slowed things down with “Strangest Thing,” Gladuciel playing a gorgeous white Gretsch hollow-body guitar, with quick strobe lights punctuating Hall’s quick four beats that kicked the song up a notch in energy, while Hartley’s melodic touches and Bennett’s piano fills added nicely to the overall spacy vibe. When the echoing repeated bouncy synth lines of “Harmonia’s Dream” started the band was all comfortably in sync, and Gladuciel let the sequence repeat for nearly a minute before diving in to the song that quickly grew along with the punchy guitars, and the songs melody played on another synth. The crowd responded, clapping along at one point, and joining in on the sing along anthem on the “oh, oh, oh’s,” while Gladuciel’s guitar solo gave that Paul another work out.
The already heated up room, picked up even more energy as the band dived into one of their classics, “Red Eyes,” a faster rocker with another big guitar solo, the audience shouting out on cue with Gladuciel and singing along. It was one of the evening’s highpoints, with one of The War On Drugs most memorable melodic guitar lines. Then again, after hitting a high peak, they toned things done a tad with “Brothers,” which goes all the way back to 2011 and the Slave Ambient release, which included more of a piano and sax solo from Bennett and Natchez. Staying with that album for one more, they dug into the steady throb of “Come to the City.”
Then, it’s like the show stepped up to the next gear, as LaMarca’s acoustic guitar announced the beginning of “Living Proof,” the opening track of the latest album, which had lots in the crowd singing along with Gladuciel, as the song in classic The War On Drums form builds to a furious anthem. That energy flowed right into the new record’s title song, built on another classic guitar riff, and on right into “Under Pressure,” which again is one that builds slowly from the quiet haunting keyboards to the full roar, with piano, sax and Gladuciel solo on one of his Jaguar’s seemed to pull the entire crowd into the sonic atmospherics. When Gladuciel introduced his sax player, Natchez, one group in the crowd responded loudly, so on the last song of the set, “Eyes to the Wind,” another one that builds and builds from a quiet intro to a big rock beat, Gladuciel played a harmonica solo, then waved on the sax man for a full blown solo as he turned to guitar and the two played off each other to the song’s big ending. At this point, I remember thinking, The War On Drugs sounds a lot like Mark Knopfler and the Dire Straits, and that’s a good thing, as the band left the stage.
Returning quickly for encores, Gladuciel who’d made pretty generic stage banter besides the occasional intro of a band member tried to connect with something local. “Last time we were here, I remember we had this great ice cream… what was it,” his said, looking to Natchez for help, before shouting out “Graeter’s!” Then the band launched into it eighth song from the new album, “Wasted,” a sturdy rocker played straight through, no solos. As I understand it, “Occasional Rain” was listed next on the band’s prepared setlist, but responding to something yelled by the crowd, Gladuciel introduced “Slow Ghost,” as a “B side that we recorded and then decided not to include on the record.” Then enjoying improvising a bit, Gladuciel called for a different guitar than his stagehand brought out, and then had to tune it himself, the band played the title track from “Lost In a Dream” for the first time on this tour.
Now totally off script, Gladuciel announced he wanted to play a Bob Dylan song, and the roadie brought out a cheat sheet and a light that hooked onto his night stand for “Born In Time,” that goes back to 1990 and the “Under a Red Sky” album, which was delivered with a brief organ solo from Bennett. Then, to close out the night, they delivered one final anthem, “In Chains,” capping off a fine evening of live rock music.