WAR ON DRUGS, REVIEWED (2023): Thunder but no hurricane

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 WAR ON DRUGS, REVIEWED (2023): Thunder but no hurricane

If there's a recession, then no one told Auckland's “squeezed middle” out looking for entertainment this weekend.

On Friday there was the Hansel and Gretel ballet at the Aotea Centre (music by Claire Cowan), the Others Way festival which took over various venues on and around K Rd, Lloyd Cole at the cathedral in Parnell and Kraftwerk at the Spark Arena.

The following night Spark hosted War on Drugs, a jam band guitar-rock outfit with simple lighting and the polar opposite of Kraftwerk's detached electro-futurism with big back-projections.

Screenshot_2023_12_03_at_9.31.53_AMRelying on public transport meant I arrived in time to catch opening act Spoon halfway through their set and delivering a searing version of John Lennon's Isolation then five other songs before War on Drugs.

But first let me talk about reviewing.

If we – and I'm usually accompanied by someone else – buy our own tickets they're just what we can afford, usually the cheapest and very rarely – rarely to the point of never, I think – the most expensive.

And that's fine.

If the promoter offers me tickets I take whatever they give me, and if that's the back row where the artist is a pin-prick on the distant horizon then so be it.

And if it's General Admission then I'm happy to stand in the melee on the floor just like everyone else.

d3In each case I figure the people around me have paid to be there and that's how a reviewer should see a show too. That's why with most of my reviews the photos are just what I saw, not from the photographers' pit.

Sometimes years ago I would be given tickets at the sound desk or somewhere in comfort and that was nice, but being where the paying public is seems a far better way to see and assess a show. I'd say to promoters to put me anywhere, why give me a prime seat for nothing when they could sell it?

Promoters are there to make money and I approve of that because if they do then they'll do it again. Good.

d2And so, like everyone, I've been behind the tallest guy in the room who can't figure out of the wants to lean left or right. I've stood next to sudden fights, couples about to engage in some sex act, those having a domestic dispute as the band plays on and drug deals done.

So be it.

These people have paid their money to be there and in many instances I haven't.

So yes, I've had to endure those who talk to – or usually shout at – their friends all the way through a song then bay like hounds at the end.

Usually I just move away although once at a sit-down show I turned around and asked the jabbering guy behind me if he wanted me to ask Robert Plant to stop playing so he could talk with his companion. He apologised . . . but later typed real tough on Facebook about what he'd do to me.

d1At the Spoon/War on Drugs show I was, for a while, behind a woman who held her camera aloft through all the songs although sometimes was filming the ceiling, and a guy who seemed to have stumbled in from a gospel revival and had his right hand held aloft all the time as if testifying. I moved away in case he started speaking in tongues.

I ended up behind a drunk girl doing interpretative dance who then decided her true calling was conducting the crowd behind her into singing along or putting their hands I the air.

I moved away.

They'd paid their money so . . .

A few weeks before they came here I spoke with WoDrugs' mainman Adam Granduciel who was having a few months off. He said the first shows after a hiatus were usually the best because the band were finding their way back into the songs again and he was looking forward to that. And that they just liked getting up there and having fun.

d4At Spark there was little visible evidence of the latter, it looked like damn hard work for the portly Granduciel who was constantly towelling his face, no doubt because he was seriously wrestling with the songs and often engaged in a death struggle with his guitar.

It was wonderful to watch and the band is made up of exceptional players, notably Jon Natchez on baritone sax who at one point delivered a thrilling solo (if not entirely audible from where I was front left on the floor). It's customary for saxophonists to take their moment to a crowd-pleasing and piercingly high note at the end but he beavered around the mid-range in the manner of a post-bop free jazz player.

Drummer Charlie Hall was so focused and physical during the furious opener An Ocean Between The Waves it was hard to imagine he'd have the stamina for much more.

Screenshot_2023_12_03_at_9.33.10_AMBut he was extraordinary, as was the lean and rangy bassist David Harley who made the impossible seem effortless and with Hall created a superb, grounded rhythm section.

Guitarist/keyboard player Eliza Hardy Jones seemed mostly under-utilised as did second guitarist Anthony LaMarca whom Granduciel said he liked to play off.

That happened less often than expected.

As the set churned on (that is a compliment) a couple of things became clear: this great band allowed Granduciel to deliver like the electric Dylan of the Rolling Thunder era or even his gospel period.

But despite analogies with Crazy Horse, Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, the E Street Band et al, WoDrugs might have the rolling thunder but they don't have a Like a Hurricane, Refugee or It's All Right Mama in their catalogue, those stadium-shaking communal songs which elicit an immediate roar of approval and are given a riotous reception.

d5Don't get me wrong, they do have great songs like An Ocean Between the Waves, Harmonia's Dream, Red Eyes and I Don't Live Here Anymore, all played in concert

But they exist better on albums where the sound is separated, the guitars and vocals coming through more crisply.

Live, at least on this showing when they were back on tour after that hiatus, the sound become like an incessant and undistinguished tidal wave which washed on and on. Granduciel's Dylanesque lyrics – often quite poetic – disappeared, the guitar solos were sometimes exciting but all too often lost in the mire.

Maybe it sounded better up the back in the cheap seats.

Was it a great rock show?

d6The people around me who'd paid to be there would say yes, but the band rarely looked like they were having fun up there as Granduciel had said, aside from Hardy Jones who had an elevated position at the back and would often smile with delight at the hands waved and girls on shoulders (as Granduciel suggested).

Granduciel told me he looked forward to seeing Spoon open for them every night on the tour and I could see why.

If WoDrugs is in that lineage of stadium and festival bands of the old style as he says, then Spoon had distinctive songs, aural dynamics and great al.rock sensibilities.

I'd only heard one album by them (and a couple of things here and there) but on the way out I stopped at the merch wagon and bought a copy (signed) of their record Lucifer on the Sofa released last year.

I thought today I'd be playing War on Drugs but I suspect it is going to be Spoon for quite a while.


Indigo Sparke, Spoon and War on Drugs played Spark Arena, Auckland, December 2, 2023


Elsewhere tries to take a different approach to reviewing live concerts, often looking at the bigger picture or wider context rather just a setlist recount of the show.

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Jeremy - Dec 5, 2023

I took the opportunity to buy a signed copy of Lucifer On The Sofa too! Really pleased you enjoyed Spoon – I think they are one of the best bands of the last 20 odd years. All albums good and some great, chock full of strong songs in their inimitable edgy, syncopated style. In many ways they are the anti-War on Drugs – short, sharp songs played with a total refusal to ever rock them out, no matter how good the groove. They may exude weathered indie cool, but they were a blistering live band too. Similar to War On Drugs in that they also have one main songwriter with a very clear sense of their sound (Britt Daniel), but dissimilar in that they clearly love playing together, swapping instruments and all members bringing something to the stage. As my mate, who had never listened to Spoon before said, they are a bold choice for War On Drugs to have as a support act! Just a great great band.

Pedro The Swift - Dec 12, 2023

Much like Auckland, Perth is usually tagged on to either the first or last date of an Oz/NZ tour and so it was last light with WOD et al finishing their tour in King's Park Botanic Gardens so it was interesting to compare my experience with yours, G. I arrived just as Spoon took the stage and found a comfy spot on the grass in the "cheap" seats just stage left. To be honest I was probably a bit more keen to see them as I've never caught them live before and they did not disappoint. Everything you want in a band. Short, sharp, well-written songs played well live. Isolation was a highlight.
I didn't have any expectations for WOD after reading your review but they were a pleasant surprise. I last saw them at a festival here in WA in 2014/5 before they really made it big and they were pretty good back the. Last night, they were a level above. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves...Charlie Hall was a revelation live, clearly their anchor. They played well over their allotted time (almost 2 hours instead of the 90 minutes advertised). I found the guitar solos, even though long, mesmerising and never outstayed their welcome and the interplay with all the other band members was interesting to watch.
Maybe it was the setting (outdoors on a cloudless, starry night), maybe it was the cheap seats or maybe it was because it was the final night of the tour but I found them to be utterly enchanting. I'm sorry your experience in Auckland was not similar.
Oh, and for Spoon...I bought the Tshirt and stubbie holder. I'm wearing one and I'll use the other this afternoon, probably while listening to WOD! Cheers G, and merry christmas to you and your loved ones!

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