The War On Drugs: Live Drugs (Super High Quality Records)

Current holders of the greatest US rock band title point the way forward to their next chapter with superlative live album

Released Nov 20th, 2020 via Super High Quality Records / By Richard Lewis
The War On Drugs: Live Drugs (Super High Quality Records) Present title holders of America’s greatest rock n’ roll band, as it has for everyone, 2020 hasn’t gone to plan for The War On Drugs. The Philadelphian sextet’s new LP due for release before the year was out has understandably been pushed back.

In addition to providing a substantial stop-gap release until the next album, Live Drugs serves to draw a line under one era of the group, charting their path from an acclaimed neo-psych act playing clubs to the arena fillers they are today. An outstanding live proposition from relatively early on (review) the disc pulls together tracks from over forty hard drives worth of material from 2014 – 19, mixed and sequenced to evoke a single live show.

The greatest US rock group to emerge in the past decade, it feels fitting that the LP taps into the early 1970s era of lavish live albums issued by their antecedents: The Doors’ Absolutely Live / the Woodstock OST / Crosby Stills & Nash’s 4 Way Street and the constantly on the road Grateful Dead (who TWOD covered in 2016) set Skull and Roses.

While the group are understandably thought of as the vision of singer/guitarist Adam Granduciel, the set underlines just how much of a fully functioning band TWOD are. With all of the members introduced to the crowd during the LP, Dave Hartley with Granduciel from the band’s inception, is hailed as “lead bassist”. Building from a pattering drum machine motif into a surging roar, live favourite An Ocean Between The Waves is propelled by Charlie Hall’s superlative metronomic beats, while keys player Robbie Bennett shines on Eyes to the Wind, his delicate piano part lending an already elegiac song extra poignancy.

Recalling Tunnel of Love-era Springsteen Pain and ten-minute epic Thinking of a Place retain their power as intimate live experiences no matter how big the crowd they are played to. An emotionally charged Strangest Thing underscores Granduciel is no slouch on the guitar, while the whoop that signals arguably the group's finest rocker Red Eyes kicking into high gear is matched by the audiences’ cheer.

None of the tracks present replications of their studio bound blueprints and refreshingly there seems to be minimal post-production tampering, something even the most legendary live albums are subject to (The Who’s Live At Leeds needed its backing vocals re-recorded). Throwing in a couple of curveballs, a cover of Warren Zevon’s Accidentally like a Martyr doffs a cap to the cult LA songwriter while Buenos Aires Beach highlights the band’s overlooked 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues, an era when they were still finding their feet.

Indulging in the standard music critic gripe of pointing out which songs aren’t present, nothing from the group’s 2011 set Slave Ambient is included, a slight disappointment as the LP serves as the Rosetta Stone of their career when they gloriously coalesced into the group they are today.

Structured to conclude at the summit, Under the Pressure possibly the band’s best-known track becomes a twelve minute leviathan before seguing seamlessly into In Reverse. Gradually taking shape from an ambient wash of synth and guitars into the main body of the song and on to an extended breakdown before taking flight again beautifully, the audience chants the guitar melody.

A summation of their progress so far, Live Drugs serves as an excellent resume of the band’s career or possibly as a primer for anyone who hasn’t investigated them fully yet. 4/5