War on Drugs review – Powerstation, Auckland

Goddamn I got it wrong again. According to the 2 reviews I read, the War on Drugs gig at the Powerstation in Auckland was pretty awesome. I was ready to go home after 3 songs, but I stuck it out, at least until they went off stage. An encore would have been a step too far, like the awful Cat Power concert a few years ago where after every song I held on – “they’ll hit their straps with the next one”. Never did.

I have to say I was predisposed to not be awed. I have tried 3 War on Drugs cd’s and sort of like some of them. I would like to like them more, much like I would like to like Dinosaur Jnr or Sebadoh. But I have to ‘fess up to the the fact that I don’t. WoD drive me nuts because I have no idea what he is singing about. After the first song at the Powerstation I thought that problem might be solved – vocals seemed a lot more upfront than the cd’s. But either it didn’t last or I
switched off, hard to say which. Actually the first song I enjoyed, and had to laugh when they launched into the guitar solo. Nothing like a complete rock cliche well executed! It was a welcoming statement – this is what we do, this is the page we are on, come on a ride with us. You could see it coming a mile off, but it was so assured it would have been churlish not to join in the fun.

It became less fun when they did it again. And again. And again.

The other thing that bothers me with WoD, and particularly in this gig, was the mid tempo 2 chord strum that seemed to be every song. I felt sorry for the musicians trying to work up a vibe playing C and G all night. Dynamics, either musically or sonically, were horribly lacking, which is why by song 3 I was confident I had seen and heard everything they were going to deliver. Odd that a band with 3 sets of keyboards, a bass sax, a small tuba thing (euphonium – dear god they’re not bringing Don McGlashan on stage are they?), an array of guitar effects that looked like a submarine control station, 6 guitars, electronic drum pads as well as the acoustic set, and a second guitarist, could sound so much the same for an hour and a half. No another guitar solo does not count as variation. I guess at about 3/4 through the set they tried a couple of quieter numbers, but I was underwhelmed, and then it was back to formula #1.

At the risk of getting nerdy, I’m going to comment on the sound. I find sound at the Powerstation to vary wildly depending on where you stand. We started off upstairs to the right, and if I hadn’t had earplugs I would have left. It reminded me of the bad old days with high frequency horns pointing right at your head. Just ear shredding high frequencies, at literally dangerous, deafening levels. I thought modern PA’s, with their wide dispersion arrays, had largely solved this problem? I’m not really up with that tech, so I don’t know what was going on, but I wasn’t hanging around to ponder it. We headed downstairs where thankfully there was a much better balance, at the expense of the view. Lord knows how many years of hearing those upstairs without earplugs have lost.

Back to the band. Dylan and the E Street Band are obvious touchpoints. I didn’t think Dire Staits were so apparent in the live show, though I did on the recent cd. I thought they were like the E Street Band as played by MGMT, the kitchen sink pummeled and smashed into a wall of sound, an exhilarating rush for a few moments but quickly revealing itself as an empty throb. Throb along, folks. How I longed for something to grab a hold of, like a guitar solo not swamped in effects,
or words I could decipher. Or a tune I hadn’t already heard. I wanted to be thrilled by wild, crazy guitar solos, but didn’t find them so. In fact he seemed to do the same one finger wiggle down the fretboard quite a lot. It made me want to listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town, or Gang of Four, or even Black Flag. Something concise, articulate, and not sound proffering itself as meaning.

WoD seem to be at their best when they hit on a magic groove, when the simple, motoring drums coalesce with the layers of guitars, keyboards, echos, and fragments of vocals that hint at a world that is in fact revealed and illuminated by driving, joyous music. They are great at subtle changes that kick this on, like switching from electronic to acoustic drums, or changing to a bigger sounding snare. The vocals come back in at just the right spot, as do the guitar solos.

It’s good, rousing stuff when it works. Some engagement with the audience from stage would be a nice addition though.

WoD seems to be quite prolific, and I’m curious where they (he) goes next. More of the same, or development that gets them onto the stadiums of the world?

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