Sunday, February 22, 2015

The War on Drugs, Albert Hall Manchester, 19th February 2015 9.5/10

Damon McMahon of the support act Amen Dunes explained in an interview: "I always had a deep connection to some other world. I would just wander in the woods for hours and commune with other creatures and spirits." Last night, there was Christian symbolism all around in the architecture of this former chapel, and regardless of any religious beliefs you may have, it was an intensely spiritual occasion. This stemmed partly from the expansive nature of main act The War on Drugs, giving space for contemplation, but particularly from the extraordinary intensity of the performance. A review of an earlier gig highlighted the interplay between Adam Granduciel on lead guitar and David Hartley on bass, but I felt that Charlie Hall's driving beat was the most notable feature. The drummer held an almost trance like state throughout, totally subsumed in music, and the shoe gaze influenced jangly guitars did not give rise to a moment of slackness.

A pinnacle was reached in An Ocean Between The Waves, expanded to 10 minutes, but the entire two hour set had an epic quality redolent of the humbling scale of the landscape on a US road trip. This song comes from an album several critics placed at the top of their 2014 retrospectives, though it didn't spring to life for me until I saw The War on Drugs live for first time at Green Man festival in August. In Manchester they sounded even richer, the texture filled out with saxophone and keyboards, and the volume increasing the feeling of immersion. Yet, it felt like above all a celebration of Granduciel's guitar virtuosity. Lost in The Dream may have only one purely instrumental track, but this set gave plenty of opportunity to let the imagination roam during extended non vocal sections. Much of the album was composed and recorded by Granduciel alone late at night, but it translated seamlessly into a collaborative effort on stage

This is the sound of dreamscapes, deep emotions lurking just beneath the surface; the lyrics cut through the slightly opaque surface (and the album's glossy production) to reveal an angst and loneliness beneath. Lost in the Dream came out of the turmoil of Granduciel's breakdown following the unexpected success of Slave Ambient. He grew up as a loner, getting into music as an accompaniment to painting; and his move to Philadelphia and collaboration with Kurt Vile were key influences on this project. If Vile's departure was shattering enough, the descent into depression after splitting with his girlfriend was devastating: "I found myself totally isolated, emotionally and physically, from both myself and my community." Yet, out of such wreckage came an album of enduring merit, which should be ranked alongside contemporary classics such as The Suburbs.

Live too, expectations are confounded. The atmosphere was more ecstatic than gloomy: yes, the language is introverted, but Granduciel has found a light shining in the darkness of life's struggle. With the exception of an inebriated minority, the crowd was relatively subdued, but there was no awkwardness from the stage, and there was even a spontaneous, unplanned rendition of Rosa following a shouted request from the audience. I was surprised that a person who has suffered from panic attacks seemed so at ease, but he's explained: "playing in front of people is a really safe place. I fear most things, but that I don’t." The War On Drugs conjures up dreamscapes, more beautiful and compassionate than the world outside. Inhabiting this alternate reality is profoundly healing, time standing still as the soul is nourished. But, for all the talk of God, perhaps this profound experience says most about the human imagination, capable of self-destructive thoughts in parallel with such incredible, unique creativity.

Set List
Arms Like Boulders
Under The Pressure
In Reverse
An Ocean In-between The Waves
Baby Missiles
Rosa On The Factory Floor (Jethro Tull cover)
Best Night
Red Eyes
Eyes To The Wind
It's Your Destiny
Lost In The Dream
I Was There
The Haunting Idle
Your Love Is Calling My Name

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