The War on Drugs

O2 Apollo, Manchester; Sunday 12th November 2017



If you’re a passionate music lover, one of the most upsetting things about falling in love with a band has to be the numbing disbelief of recalling that it was a pure-chance event that led you to ever stumble across them in the first place. Some music fans might be lucky enough to be involved in the industry, where perhaps they can take a John Peel-like role in systematically hunting out all the gems that lie out there waiting to be discovered. But for the rest of us it will be pure chance. And with that comes the wide-eyed horror of contemplating what life might be like if I hadn’t been exactly there to discover that band exactly when I did.

Like that time in the early 2000s when curiosity got the better of me and I plugged my headphones into the seat on a Virgin train to London Euston – it was pure chance that The Cedar Room by Doves was playing on the train radio, and right there began a prowling obsession with the second best band to come out of Manchester.

And so it was with The War on Drugs, back in the day. I’d popped in to The Gap during my lunch break to buy some Standard White T Shirts and that’s when I heard it playing in the background. I had to head over to the speaker, pull out my phone and then look like a bit of an idiot whilst I stood there holding it up for what felt like ages while I waited for SoundHound to identify what was playing.

Bands are rubbish lovers. They’ll never love you back, they first arrive in the most unlikely of circumstances, they don’t even know that you exist, and then they keep you waiting three years at a time before they even bother to make any attempt to contact you again.

Back in 2014, The War on Drugs’ last Manchester performance was in the humble surroundings of the University’s Student Union building. Three years and a much-anticipated new album later, the 2017 tour represents a significant step up for the band with two sell-out nights at the O2 Apollo.

Support came in the shape of Canadian folky-guitar outfit The Barr Brothers – who will be back in Manchester in January to play at the Deaf Institute. As far as support acts go, this was an impressive choice, you’re not going to find a band who are “like” The War on Drugs when you can’t even accurately pinpoint what the musical genre is, but The Barr Brothers did a fine job, setting the scene in a pleasing middle-of-the-road indie rock way.

Originally hailing from Philadelphia, USA, The War on Drugs look like a completely ordinary bunch of non-rocking guys who maybe need a hair cut and perhaps someone to tell them a few jokes to make them smile a bit more.

But their music is extraordinary. Probably aligning closest to the American indie / rock style of the likes of Arcade Fire and maybe a bit of Kings of Leon, what sets The War on Drugs apart is an uplifting sense of euphoric ambience, all driven by strong lead guitars and the drawling American-accented vocals of lead singer Adam Granduciel.

The new album A Deeper Understanding seems to have a slightly reduced pace and tempo compared to the hypnotic magic of the previous two. This manifested itself a bit too much during the performance, the euphoric highs of familiar classics such as Red Eyes and Under the Pressure being far too noticeably dampened by the slower pace of the likes of Thinking of a Place and Knocked Down from the new album – both of which seem to feel like songs from an entirely different genre and band.

But these are musicians with an exceptional talent, and they clearly enjoyed their two-hour-long performance as they showed off their full repertoire of skills. Whilst half of the evening’s set came from the new album, the rest was a selection from the band’s much-acclaimed back catalogue, the highlight of the evening being Eyes to the Wind, still their greatest work to date.

The War on Drugs put on a masterclass in Sunday night chilling rock. Sadly, going by previous form, it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing it back round these parts for at least another three years.

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