Well, I’ve had a number of gigs in a row which have met or exceeded my expectations, so I guess I was due a bit of a clunker… It all seemed fairly promising; a chance to check out a new band on me, namely Philadelphia, PA. alt-rockers The War On Drugs, who thanks to Tim’s recommendation, infiltrated themselves into my end-of-2011 playlist with their sophomore effort “Slave Ambient”. Said CD garnered much critical praise, thanks to an absorbing mix of metronomic Krautrock, laconic alt-Country and wigged-out West Coast psychedelia, delivered by mainman Adam Granduciel’s drawling, monotone Bob Dylan-esque voice. Plus, the gig is on “The Dirty Boat”, a favourite location of mine, the scuzzy Thekla the essence of a rock’n’roll venue. A promising proposition, and one worth “coming up for air” for, following a horrible chest infection which had laid me low for the past few days. Hey, if I’m fit enough to return to work, I’m certainly fit enough for a gig!
So Tim and Tracey collected me early, and we parked up outside the “Dirty Boat” in time to get a drink while support Weird Dreams plied their trade onstage. The first number I heard sounded promising in a chiming C86 girly pop kind of way, but they then descended into innocuous wallpaper fayre, and were largely ignored by the rapidly filling crowd.
We squeezed our way down the front, stage left, whilst Adam Granduciel – who with a mop of long curls and a general unkempt air, recalled another Adam, namely “Northern Exposure”’s vagrant genius chef Adam – laboured through a finicky soundcheck, before flicking his sampler on and inflicting some dense white noise upon us, then subsequently leading the band back on at ¼ to 9. After an opener eased the set in, Adam demanded, “Bobby, where’s my sampler? I’m not joking this time!” and the noise kicked in again as the backdrop to the chiming, metronomic “Baby Missiles”. This and a subsequent “Your Love Is Calling My Name” were fine, resonant and absorbing, and featured some fine atonal harmonica from Adam. However from the outset much of the other material on show came across droney and aimless, the subtle nuances of light and shade evident on CD being overpowered by swathes of suffocating and unnecessary guitar and sampler overload.
Adam finally broke his non-communication pact midway through, to tell us of his last gig in Bristol, at the Louisiana, and a subsequent wander around to find his hotel for 2 hours in the rain (“Good times!” shouted some wag). However the following cover of The Waterboys’ “A Pagan Place” was once again smothered, and resembled the trial of endurance Adam’s rainy trek must have been. “Arms Like Boulders”, lean, punchy and muscular, briefly threatened to redeem matters, but the final set double-header, which culminated a heavy-going 1½ hour set, were again both murky and discordant messy walls of sound. I dunno, I like noise as much as anyone (Bob Mould in June is likely to be ear-splittingly and viscerally noisy), but this just didn’t do it for me, the shimmering wall of sound I expected being muddy and indistinct throughout.
So a disappointing experience overall; a brief set-list enquiry with the bassist afterwards revealed they don’t use one (“it’s all in our heads; if I had one I’d give it to you, man”), but if I’m honest, would I really have wanted it after that set? A shut M4 saw us detouring around foggy country lanes through Castle Combe on the way back, just to cap a disappointing night. I like their CDs way too much to abandon The War On Drugs right now, but let’s just say they’re waaaaay better on record than “live” at this point…