Photo credit- Ryan Johnston
THE WAR ON DRUGS’ latest album A Deeper Understanding took the band to new dizzying heights when it arrived earlier this year. After receiving critical acclaim from all corners of the globe, the band are no longer a well-kept secret but something of a musical phenomenon; a fact reinforced by their arrival in Glasgow for two sold out nights at the revered Barrowland Ballroom.
They have brought a fiercely talented support band along with them in The Barr Brothers. Hailing from Montreal in Quebec, a modest crowd gathers at the front of the stage to witness a sharp and entrancing performance that makes us wonder why this band haven’t made more of an impact on UK soil before now. Boasting a sound that oscillates between uniquely ambient and harmonically rich, from dynamic and bluesy to ethereal, they incorporate elements of Americana, folk, blues and rock into a set that showcases material from all three of their albums, including the recently released Queens of the Breakers.
It’s particularly enjoyable to see such a variety of instruments being used on the stage so effectively; from the gorgeous harp, to Andrew Barr’s command of the drum kit to the warm tones of the electric guitar, there is a lot of instrument swapping going on and it lends depth and texture to their music. From the rocking, foot-stomping numbers that build in intensity with their clever rhythms ad feverish energy to the delicate ballad that frontman Brad Barr performs alongside beautiful harmonies provided by harpist Sarah Page, it’s easy to see why the band have been selected to tour alongside The War On Drugs with such evocative and sweetly melodic tunes in their arsenal. By the end of their set, the room is buzzing with people and they leave the stage to a deservedly warm reception.
Tonight, it’s all about the main attraction though. Taking to the stage at around half eight, Adam Granduciel and co kick things off with the shimmering sounds of ‘Holding On’. Brimming with sparkling optimism, its soaring synths and propulsive rhythms gain a rapturous response from the crowd while the slide-guitar ascent halfway through is even more spine-tingling when seen in person.
With the band’s fourth and most recent full-length album A Deeper Understanding taking up most of the setlist, the night is full of extended jams and rousing guitar solos. ‘Pain’ and the beautifully haunted ‘Strangest Things’ are early peaks and lock them into a groove propelled by Granduciel’s cool, fluid riffs. And having brought their blown-out rock to new widescreen proportions on their latest record, it’s as if the music is pushing beyond the walls of the Barrowland Ballroom; aching to be heard in open-air fields and arenas as it soars over the audience.
Early material such as Baby Missiles and Buenos Aires Beach gets a run out with the band displaying their fierce musicianship with each well-executed song. Surrounded by a stunning lighting rig, it effectively shifts the mood with the ebb and flow of the set – lending a warmth to the likes of Holding On before becoming increasingly dramatic for each roaring crescendo. The War on Drugs are all about the music though and the band perform with little fanfare. Despite being the driving force of the band, frontman Granduciel is an unassuming focal point; aside from a few Springsteen-esque ‘whoops’, he is a reluctant rocks star, instead preferring to become immersed in his layered and textured compositions; every tune delivered with sharp precision.
His six-piece band provide the perfect cushion for the extended instrumentals that take up most of the night; from the cascading stream of synths to the keyboard fills to Jon Natches’s buzzing baritone sax to Granduciel’s harmonica solos, it’s a masterclass in musicianship; the only complaint being that after a while, each multi-layered composition begins to blend into the next and this leads to a slight lull in the middle of the set.
Other highlights of the night come from the band’s 2014 breakthrough album Lost In The Dream such as An Ocean Between The Waves and timeless classic ‘Red’. It’s ‘Under The Pressure’ that sends the Barrowlands into frenzy though; building and building before an emphatic drum break blows it open with thrilling results.
An excellent encore featuring ‘Clean Living’, ‘Burning’ and ‘Eyes To The Wind’ ensures that the band receive a hero’s reception at the end of the night. The War on Drugs may not clamber for attention but this standout performance is an overwhelming display of craft. Not quite a breakthrough or a victory lap, it’s a night that reinforces their position as one of the world’s most vital modern rock bands as they stake their claim for festival headline slots next summer.