‘At moments like these, the band absolutely soars’ – Neill Dougan on The War On Drugs‘ recent Vicar Street gig An unexpected promotion can be a mixed blessing. Yes, there’s the bonus of the added kudos of the upgrade, but on the flipside one most also contend with the increased pressure to perform in your new role, and this can backfire horribly. Your correspondent is reminded of the time he was plucked – quite out of the blue – from his under-14s school football side to play for the under-15s, who were short of players. So nervous were we at the startling prospect of playing against bigger boys that we vomited profusely before the match, proceeded to have the shocker to end all shockers and, not only were we returned unceremoniously to the under-14s for the next match, but to add insult to injury were actually dropped to the bench for the next game. In short, we blew it.
If Philadelphia’s intrepid purveyors of psychedelic Americana The War On Drugs feel a similar pressure as a result of their heavily oversubscribed date at Dublin’s Button Factory being switched to the larger Vicar Street, they make a much better show of hiding it. Indeed – coming off the back of the ecstatic reviews for most recent album ‘Lost In The Dream’ – they look (and sound) completely at home in their surroundings, giving every impression of a band ready to take a step up the commercial ladder with something approaching insouciance.
Standing centre-stage and delivering his gnomic lyrics from beneath a tousle of hair while also delivering snaking lead guitar lines, frontman Adam Granduciel might naturally be the focus of attention, but he’s ably supported by a five-piece band comprising stoic bassist, two keyboardists (one of whom doubles up on occasional electric and acoustic guitar), an almost comically intense drummer and a one-man horn section, alternating between baritone sax and trumpet. Superbly tight and well-drilled, the band rip into highlights from the new album including ‘Eyes To The Wind’, ‘Under The Pressure’ and ‘Red Eyes’, the latter in particular noticeable for Granduciel’s outstanding guitar work. The band is a considerably more visceral, amped-up proposition live than their dreamy and occasionally droney records would suggest, and a trio of highlights from 2011’s ‘Slave Ambient’ – the superb ‘Baby Missiles’, ‘Your Love Is Calling My Name’ and ‘Come To The City’ – is remarkably ferocious. At moments like these, the band absolutely soars.
For all that, the evening is not without its flaws. The performance is almost two hours long and – while value for money is great and all (and make no mistake, at €20 a ticket this was great value) – there are moments when it drags ever so slightly, notably during covers of Bill Fay’s ‘I Hear You Calling’ and The Waterboys’ ‘A Pagan Place’. Granduciel barely addresses the crowd for the first two-thirds of the concert (although he lightens up towards the end, dedicating a song to his dad who’s in attendance). There are grumbles amongst sections of the crowd about the sound in the venue (unusual for Vicar Street, it must be said), with the skronking of the baritone sax apparently inaudible in certain areas. And ‘Black Water Falls’, the low-key closer from ‘Slave Ambient’, unsurprisingly makes for a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion to the evening.
But these mere quibbles are far outweighed by highlights that will linger long in the memory, from the majestic ‘Lost In The Dream’ and ‘In Reverse’ to a beguiling ‘Suffering’ and a dynamic, strutting airing of ‘Arms Like Boulders’ from 2008’s debut album ‘Wagonwheel Blues’. For the most part scintillatingly, effortlessly impressive, on this showing The War On Drugs (unlike certain under-14 footballers) are all too ready to step up and start playing with the bigger boys.