Published Jul 12, 2018On a summer night that looked like the headliner sounded — hazy, foggy, a bit mysterious — the War on Drugs treated the Halifax waterfront to a slow-burning tour-de-force of woozy synths and fevered guitar solos.
The band may not have had much of a view for its first-ever Halifax show; heck, at times it was easy to forget you were even standing by the water, given you could barely see the harbour itself. But with a natural smoke machine glow over the stage and the dense, damp air carrying the sound deep into the crowd, guitarist/vocalist Adam Granduciel and his band captivated from the opening notes of "Brothers" (from 2011's Slave Ambient) and didn't let up for nearly an hour-and-a-half.
I expected the set to be a showcase of last year's A Deeper Understanding record, not just because it's current, but my sense that it's helped build the band a bigger audience — the sort that can sell out the Halifax Jazz Festival's main stage. But it was on 2014's Lost in the Dream that The War on Drugs' sound — "heartland synth rock," as critic Stuart Berman has dubbed it — truly crystallized. And songs like "An Ocean Between the Waves" and "Under the Pressure," when they grow to their full size and scope, are simply too large to serve as anything other than set tentpoles. When all was said and done, Lost in the Dream songs made up more than half of the 11-song set.
One of the reasons I think the War on Drugs have struck a chord with listeners is how they're an ideal fit with our modern age of soundtracking: they echo familiar sounds (Dire Straits being one obvious reference point, but you could list many others); their songs have a repetitive groove that sustains itself for lengthy periods of time; and — most important of all — you can move their records from the foreground to the background, and back again, at your own pace. You can have a song like "Eyes to the Wind" playing on a road trip, take your focus away from it for a couple of minutes to talk to your mates, and instantly find your place again when you return to the song.
Live, however, the War on Drugs command attention — partly through Granduciel's noisy, frenetic, oft-beautiful guitar work, and partly the way the band builds and escalates their canvas as songs like "Burning" or "Pain" stretch out their moments into minutes, holding back the release until the peak. This sort of "crescendo rock," adding layer upon layer of sound and volume until the song practically bursts (expressed, most aptly, in the pre-chorus "Woo!" of "Red Eyes") may not be to everyone's tastes, but it's hard to deny its power when it's done well — and the War on Drugs are seemingly becoming near-masters of it.
Soft-spoken, Granduciel spoke only occasionally, thanking the crowd and their opener ("one of our favourite bands, Alvvays") as well as shouting out local blues star Garrett Mason (getting his name wrong, at first, as "Morris" — "we're new here," Granduciel laughed as he corrected himself).
The music spoke loud enough, though — especially at night's end, when the band launched into the familiar opening riff of "Like a Hurricane." First debuted at Massey Hall last year, but only played once since, the band's cover of the Neil Young classic was thrilling. It made the band's deep connections to a great lineage of noisy, jammy folk-rock explicit and perfectly marked the end of their short, three-date run through Canada, paying tribute to one of the country's most beloved musical exports.