I’m continuing my Autumn Dance Card “deep dive” through what appears to be the best American Alternative rock has to offer right now (Hold Steady, Real Estate, SoSo Glos in the books, with Bob Mould, Merchandise and the New Pornographers yet to come) by giving this lot another chance! My last outing with War On Drugs, 18 months ago, was a bit of a clunker, their intriguing metronomic Krautrock/ Americana mixture being submerged under swathes of indistinct noise by the Thekla’s sound system. Truth to tell, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, however WOD’s current album “Lost In The Dream” is a lovely listen; an aptly-named immersive, melancholy drift through hazy, half-lit smoky rooms bathed in early morning sunlight through latticed windows. It manages a rare feat of being intriguingly hypnotic and mesmerising, whilst at the same time evoking Don Henley’s 80’s cheeseball anthem “The Boys Of Summer”. Weird! Anyway, one hopes that the much better O2 sound system wouldn’t muck this up. We hope…
So, an early departure thanks to drizzly weather and traffic chaos in Swindon still meant I parked up at 7.30. However this was unfortunately well in time to join the early-comers for support Steve Gunn and his 2 back-up boys, on at 8. He kicked off with an interminably long – over 10 minutes! – opener which started pleasantly enough but then descended into Jethro Tull sludgy prog noodling. At its’ (eventual) conclusion I turned to a fellow punter and suggested, “I’m half expecting him to say now, “this is our last song”!”. Thankfully the rest of his set was a little better, tending towards forgettable strumalong alt-Americana with the odd unfortunate prog detour. However the best part of his set for me was when he introduced, “my brother Tommy on bass…” wait, what? His brother’s called Tommy Gunn?!?
After a loo break, I wormed my way back through an utterly heaving floor to an air pocket, stage left, in front of the speakers. Some shuddering pre-set feedback made me wonder whether they were trying to find the brown note (!), then War On Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel demonstrated control freak tendencies by coming onstage to lay out his own cables and pedals. You’ve got roadies for that, mate! Anyway, Adam then led the 6-piece band on to zero fanfare; they plugged in and kicked off the synth pulse and heavy guitar reverb of intriguing opener “Burning”, the sound already a quantum leap better than last time out. Hooray!
This was a fine, varied set of their melange of guitar-driven Americana, often evoking the strumalong heartland travelogues of early REM, and Stereolab/ Krautrock synth overlays. A lot of light and shade, with slower, more considered numbers mixed in, although I liked their sound better when it was off on a gallop. “The last couple of times we played [Bristol] we were on the motherfuckng boat! It’s nice to be off the Thekla!” announced Adam before the languid, absorbing “Under The Pressure”, then following the audience reaction, recanted somewhat; “oh, you like it? It’s better than here? OK, long live the Thekla!”
The excellent, upbeat “Ocean Between The Waves”, featuring a hard-edged, soaring climax almost recalling early U2, was a mid-set highlight, before a thoroughly noisy number (“Best Night”?), which was a little jarring, featuring swathes of everything (synth, brass, the whole darn kitchen sink!), but was thankfully followed by a quieter “Buenos Aires”. The subsequent, penultimate “Red Eyes”, however, was a thrilling, locomotive joyride and the best thing on the menu tonight. Adam was the pivotal point throughout; clearly in charge here, his detached, nasal tones, which recalled a hazy, lazy Bob Dylan (!), sprinkled over the music like desert sand, whilst his guitar provided the main thrust and propulsion.
“Baby Missiles” was the highlight of the encore, another breathless synth/strumalong collision, before the tender Laurel Canyon ballad of “Suffering”, the best of the slower numbers on show tonight, along with more compliments for the Thekla (!) and for tonight’s sell-out, totally engaged crowd, drew a 1 ½ hour performance to a close. Always fine, one jarring mid-set number notwithstanding, and at its’ best at full-on rhythm and jangle, this was a million times better than last time out, and a record-breaking set-list (my 18th in a row!) was the icing on the cake. I’m glad I gave War On Drugs another chance!