During the first days of the Jazz Festival, the outdoor areas of Montreal’s cultural hub were still somewhat recognizable to the average Montrealer through the elaborate scaffolding and sponsor-affiliated branding. Patches of concrete tiling, fountain grilles and surrounding buildings could be spotted along with my bobbing head as I danced along to !!!, trying to reciprocate the band’s energy and make up for the crowd’s lack of it. With this as my last impression after mostly going to indoor shows before the “grand événement de clôture,” I was thoroughly unprepared for the tsunami of a turnout for The War On Drugs that greeted me at the Place des Arts. The space was barely identifiable and myself now indistinguishable from the torrent of tourists and locals pouring through the sluices flanking the TD stage.
Miscalculating my point of entry and the amount of Montreal bodies concentrated into the space, I let “Brothers” ramp up my anticipation until at last, I glimpsed Adam Granduciel’s cascading locks just in time for the twinkling guitars introducing “Pain.” The crowd’s energy grew as those that may not have known the opening song from the older Slave Ambient recognized the single from the band’s latest Grammy-winning album, A Deeper Understanding. Emboldened by this familiarity and Granduciel’s guitar solos, increasing numbers of concertgoers swayed along to the chugging rhythm.
Jon Natchez debuted his baritone saxophone skills for the audience on “Ocean Between the Waves,” mirroring his first appearance with the group on their previous album Lost in the Dream. With the backdrop of UQAM filled to the brim with gently sloshing liquid through some fortuitously befitting wall-projected imagery, it was easy to imagine the experience as a hazy episode of REM sleep. Granduciel refocused the attention on his guitar playing with multiple solos in “Strangest Thing.” His vocals faded into the background as synth organ swelled in unison with guitar for the build-up of the song’s extended outro, before fading out to a brief, “Wonderful to be here!” address to the crowd.
Taking it all the way back to when Kurt Vile was still a member of the band, “Arms Like Boulders” was next. The song’s blues inflexion helped transition into the harmonica additions to “Burning”’s vocal harmonies and the touches of saxophone in “Eyes to the Wind.” The dulcet replicated tone of a Rhodes piano helped slow things down for “Knocked Down,” after which the band mixed things up with a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr.” More harmonica in “Baby Missiles” followed, and though this time introduced by Granduciel as being from Slave Ambient, the mass of people below the stage didn’t churn in recognition until a blast of synth ushered in the motoric drums of “Red Eyes.” Fed by Natchez’s heavily reverbed textural saxophone, Granduciel topped off the tune with a riff on the melodic hook that helped stick the song in the minds of the masses and spark the band’s popularity. Flashes of red lights matching the previous song dissolved into washes of blue, gold, and violet for “In Chains,” a tourney of instrumental touches making full use of the musicianship of each of the group’s members.
The band then melted into echoing layers of guitar in “The Haunting Idle,” using it as an extended instrumental build up to “Under the Pressure” to turn its already generous nine minutes into a time-nullifying sonic odyssey. Decompressing from this journey, Granduciel switched guitars one final time to deliver the last song of the recent album and the performance, “You Don’t Have to Go.” A wave of laser lights washed over him and then the audience, mirroring the lyrics, “Let it move through me/ Let it blow through you” and arousing the Place des Arts from the set’s reverie.
Though the hour and a half of The War on Drugs’ show didn’t include A Deeper Understanding’s epic lead single “Thinking of a Place,” the show embodied the song’s spirit even more than its ample 11-minute run time. Those looking to turn up and party on a Saturday night may have left disappointed, but those willing to lose themselves in that inarticulable thing which fuels and reveals itself in Granduciel’s music would have felt a part of themselves carried away to its wide-open spaces, remaining there to float as the rest of themselves returned home.
Review – Dylan Lai
Photos – Steve Gerrard