The War on Drugs – Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam 12/08/18

Maybe this time I can be strong
But since I know who I am
I’m probably wrong
Maybe this time I can go far
But thinking about where I’ve been
Ain’t helping me start – Cold Little Heart, Michael Kiwanuka

Pull me close and let me hold you in
Give me the deeper understanding of who I am – Pain, Adam Granduciel

In the beginning of Michael Kiwanuka’s song “Cold Little Heart” (2016, UK) you can hear a wailing, riveting siren – the synthesizer – luring in the guitar tantalizingly, which is the similar to the way “Under the Pressure” starts, a song by Philly’s own, The War on Drugs.  There is an orchestral sound – extended intros, imploring poignancy, emotive longing in the music – much the same way Michael Kiwanuka shows his own internal struggles, as Adam Granduciel did in WOD’s third studio album, Lost in the Dream, a collection of songs he wrote during a time of feeling adrift, spiraling into depression and anxiety in everyday life, so severe he was sometimes afraid to fall asleep at night.  But then there is atonement, and a kind of spiritual resurgence to thwart off the complexity of feelings, such as in “Eyes to the Wind,” a song which closes so succinctly it seems like all of the band mates conspired perfectly to make room for Jon Natchez denouement, a harrowing sax monologue. 

The War on Drugs started in 2005, when Adam Granduciel moved to Philly from its kindred cousin, Oakland, and started writing, recording, and performing with Kurt Vile.  In California, Adam was following in the footsteps of West Coast artists Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn, having worked for a time at Center and Shattuck in Berkeley.  In Philly, Adam took odd jobs, such as a bouncer, and eventually played with Vile at Johnny Brenda’s, a local venue.  The sound of Adam’s voice flickers into spades of Paul Simon’s poignancy and drifts away to Bob Dylan’s stand-still narratives.  The cast of characters of WOD on stage is equally curious; the drummer Charlie Hall works away at the songs, chipping away and holding his drum sticks, emphatically, the same way Joe Cocker would sometimes hold onto the microphone in a clenched impenetrable fist.  David Hartley standing upright in juxtaposition to Hall’s crouched back-bending style, commands the bass, Robbie Bennett’s keyboards seem to give the band its effervescence.  Anthony LaMarca’s guitar has a classical feel, clearly trained in music and jazz, an alumnus from The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. 

In Amsterdam, on December 8th, 2018, I was lucky enough to sit next to Bennett’s parents, who were visiting Amsterdam from Philly for the first time.  I was in town attending a bioprocessing summit in cell and gene therapy. I am always curious to watch shows outside of the States.  What would Europeans think of WOD?  They had played Amsterdam before, such as on November 1 and 2, 2017.  The Ziggo Dome in Southeast Amsterdam, is located outside of city-centre, close to the airport, and holds 17,000 people.  As of 2017, it ranks as the 5th busiest concert venue in the world.  The concert goers started to nod to the music in the beginning of the show, as Adam started to disassemble and unpack songs from their second studio album, Slave Ambient, and the most recently recorded album, LA-rooted and Sean Everett-engineered, A Deeper Understanding. As he zig-zagged into Lost in the Dream, the crowd whispered, “this is good.” A humanitarian pull, “Under Pressure” about panic attacks, got the crowd stirring off their feet with steady-pulsed melodies menstruating into sax riffs, guitar solos, and synthesizers rolled into a 9-minute track.  Also, from Lost in a Dream, WOD’s perennial classic, “An Ocean Between the Waves,” roared mercilessly into the crowd, specifically the end, which always reminded me of Ezra Pound’s eulogy to Aphrodite frozen in the wave,  a vortex which to him represented intellect and beauty forming birth in undulating, whirling water:  “Till now swift-circling a white foam arose/From that immortal substance, and a maid Was nourish’d in the midst/The wafting waves First bore her to Cythera’s heaven-blessed coast.” Adam’s guitar solo at the end of Ocean is absolutely riveting, spiraling outwardly, then inwardly, and mystically tearing at the floor from underneath us.  Amsterdam is home of the Dutch East India Company, forming the basis of a worldwide trading network, and home to music, beginning with the 16th century’s Rederijkerskamer.  To this day, Netherlands has one of the most open-minded cultures in the world. Witnessing this humanitarian music in such a place like this was mind numbing. I can’t wait to see them next year somewhere, anywhere.  I just want to get lost in the music in the proverbial waves, holding onto the lyrics like a life raft.

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