…and now the rest of the story:
They should have just started a 35-date European tour as guests of The Hold Steady, who pulled all their shows earlier this week due to the hospitalisation of guitarist Tad Kubler. Instead, Philadelphia’s War On Drugs find themselves stranded in London, where they were probably considering busking as an alternative to starving on the capital’s streets before being added at the last minute to tonight’s Club Uncut bill at the Borderline.
I’m sympathetic to their current circumstances and being left on their uppers by the cancellation of the Hold Steady tour and the exposure it would have brought them is no joke in anyone’s language. At the same time, I’m wholly glad they’re here tonight, because what their opening set, a frantic 30 minutes or so, packed from floor to ceiling with moments of startling rapture and abandoned mayhem, is as good as anything I’ve seen all year.
You may have read in reviews of their debut album, Wagonwheel Blues, that WOD’s music occupies an interface between the classic American songwriting of Dylan, Springsteen and Tom Petty and the sonic adventures of The Velvet Underground, say, or My Bloody Valentine.
It’s a notion you may briefly have entertained and them dismissed without hearing the album as surely fanciful. The thing is, the description – especially when you hear them live – isn’t at all far-fetched, begins in fact to feel like it actually undersells a lot of the amazing things they get up to and the fearsome noise of which they are capable, breathtakingly exciting aural landscapes wrought from nothing more apparently than a Rickenbacker, a drummer with the dynamic whack of the young Mitch Mitchell, an acoustic guitar and what looks like an array of wired-up kitchen utensils one of the band must have found at the back of someone’s garage.
They’ve just started “Arms Like Boulders”, which also opens Wagonwheel Blues, when I arrive hot-foot from Pete Molinari’s Uncut promotion at Borders and they are already in full flight, Adam Granduciel, looking beneath a tangle of hair uncannily at times like lost West Coast singer-songwriter Dino Valente, whaling away on a battered acoustic guitar, the band whipping up a firestorm behind him.
You can hear echoes in his voice of Petty, for sure, but the exclamatory phrasing, daring and acute, is more noticeably reminiscent of a Dylan just gone electric and simply buzzing. You can hear Dylan in the following “Taking The Farm”, but here the backing sounds like a demented version of Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, warped, furious, insanely catchy.
As is, you’d have to say, the somewhat more serene drift of “Buenos Aires Beach” they’re playing now, its warm glow an overture to the absolute meltdown of the 10-minute “Show Me The Coast” they play next. Years ago, in Glasgow, I saw Dylan play a version of “Masters Of War”, whose arrangement that night seemed inspired by the Velvet Underground’s “Black Angel’s Death Song”. Tonight, War On Drugs give us a hint of what it might have sounded like if Bob had appeared on “Sister Ray”, whose relentless annihilation is fearsomely replicated.
They end with an equally fierce version of “A Needle In Your Eye #16”, which Granduciel reminds the audience appeared on Uncut’s Let It Roll CD that accompanied “issue 152, the one with Liam or Noel Gallagher, the ugly brother, whoever he is” on the cover.
War On Drugs have been so good that what follows has an almost inevitable air of anti-climax.
The Dudes are loud and rocky, two of them sport unfashionable moustaches and severe haircuts and a third is wearing an AC/DC T-shirt. I’d been expecting some bar band rumble, but they turn out, surprisingly, to be more Queen than Crazy Horse. On one number with a typically big chorus, they even attempt a kind of “Radio Ga Ga” clap-along.
Vancouver’s Ladyhawk are louder and hairier, their between-song banter makes them sound like characters from South Park and with names like Duffy Driediger, Darcy Hancock and Sean Hawryluk, they would not be out of place among Thomas Pynchon’s intrepid Chums Of Chance in Against The Day.
alan jones, Editor of UNCUT magazine