My relationship to a band I love isn’t entirely solidified until I see them play live. I want to obsess over the band for a week before the show, I want to talk about possible setlists with the people who are going with me to the show, I want to chat with strangers standing near me at the show, I want to see what guitars are on stage.
More importantly, though, I think it’s obvious when a band is passionate about the music they make, and seeing that passion in person affirms my love of the music in some way. I saw The War on Drugs a few months ago, and they did exactly what I want a band to do at a live show. The songs weren’t rote copies of their studio counterparts, and it was clear Adam Granduciel and company cared deeply about the music they were playing. Live Drugs, their 2020 live album, presents (in abbreviated form–the album is only about 75 minutes, and the show I saw was about 2 hours 15 minutes) everything that makes The War on Drugs a live band that will keep someone who’s seen them a fan for a very long time.
The first thing that you notice while listening to Live Drugs is that everyone involved in The War on Drugs is extremely good at playing their instruments, and they’re particularly good at playing them together. There’s 7 people on stage at a War on Drugs show, but they are making 1 sound. Each member knows exactly when to provide ambience and color and exactly when to kick it into high gear. “An Ocean In Between the Waves” starts the album by showcasing drummer Charlie Hall’s propulsive nature, but Granduciel and the keyboard players are working in complete tandem with Hall, too. The keyboards sort of swirl around over the verses, and Granduciel’s voice goes from a mumble to a shout just as Hall starts hitting the snare a bit harder. Everything is timed so perfectly. I think it was a good choice to open the live album with “An Ocean” even though the song doesn’t normally open their shows. To someone unacquainted with the band, “An Ocean” lets you know immediately what The War on Drugs is about. They’re a locomotive train that rarely stops to refuel.
So, The War on Drugs is a 7-piece wrecking crew, sure, but it’s also very much Adam Granduciel’s Band. And, like many great rock singers, Granduciel is not very good at singing. Not if you think singing is about hitting notes. But Granduciel absolutely knows how to deliver his songs in a way that makes them compelling, which makes him a better vocalist than most in my eyes. Granduciel, in the Bob Dylan/Bob Weir spirit, does not deliver a line the same way twice, and thank god for that. If I wanted to hear him adhere note for note to the studio version of “Pain,” I would just listen to the studio version of “Pain.” Instead, Granduciel changes his vocal inflections like a pitcher changing arm slots. “Pain” has the line: “I met a man with a broken back/he had a fear in his eyes that I could understand.” On the studio version, “he had a fear in his eyes that I could understand” is all delivered at a lower register. On the Live Drugs version, “he had a fear in his eyes” is up higher, and the second half goes back down to the lower register. On the version of “Pain” I saw in DC, the whole line is delivered at a higher register. Which one sounds the best to my ears? It would probably depend on the day.
The War on Drugs pull another one of my favorite live band tricks, which is cover a song and play it so well it sounds like an original. The War on Drugs has no interest in playing a cover to elicit an easy singalong, either. When I saw them, they played “Born in Time,” a Bob Dylan song from his 1990 album Under the Red Sky, which many critics say is his worst. On Live Drugs, the band covers Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” a ballad that’s also the second least played song on Spotify from Zevon’s album Excitable Boy. Granduciel likes the songs, though, and that comes through loud and clear from the covers. Granduciel gives “Accidentally Like a Martyr” two weird, unsettling guitar solos and trades the Zevon song’s piano fills for twinkling guitar licks. What could have been a weak point on the live album instead both introduced me to a great song and set up a ridiculous three-song stretch to end the album of “Eyes to the Wind,” “Under the Pressure,” and “In Reverse.”
“An Ocean in Between the Waves” is a perfect encapsulation of The War on Drugs Live, but “Under the Pressure” is the pinnacle of War on Drugs Live. It’s a revelation what the band pulls off in 12 minutes. The obvious downside of a live album is that it’s not a video, so I guess it’s possible to miss the intensity that the band gives to “Under the Pressure.” But I think they know it’s their best live song, and they give it the attention and drama it deserves. The studio version features about 30 seconds of ambient build-up to the first piano riff; the live versions provide 3+ minutes of that build-up. Same goes for the break mid-song, which lasts about a minute in the studio and goes on for about 3 minutes live, as well. All this anticipation makes the moment when the drums come in feel infinitely more satisfying. Granduciel understands that too–on the last verse on live versions of “Under the Pressure,” he’s literally shouting over the rest of the band.
I think it’s extraordinarily easy to have a good time at a concert. I’ve enjoyed 99.9 percent of concerts I’ve been to. A lot of times, though, the fun I had at a show had more to do with the people I went with, the drinks I had, etc. With The War on Drugs, the music alone will keep me coming back regardless of the setting or the context.