As I walked into The Aragon Ballroom on Thursday night, I was curious about how The War on Drugs would interpret their songs in a live setting. Interpret is lead singer/guitarist Adam Granduciel’s word. Nearly everything I’ve read or heard about the indie rock band’s latest album, A Deeper Understanding, has described Granduciel’s extended, meticulous recording process. This process involved a year and a half of Granduciel experimenting with guitars, synths and drum machines. He did so in studios across the country, sometimes without the band’s other members, until he got the sound just right. The result is an incredibly complex, beautiful masterpiece that combines the raw energy of heartland rock with many of the instruments and production techniques of contemporary indie rock. Due to the album’s complexity, however, it’s impossible to replicate it in a live setting.
Despite my curiosity, it turns out that the band sounds remarkably similar when performing live, and my attention quickly shifted toward figuring out how they pulled this off. I noticed two primary tactics in this regard. First, they maintained the extended interludes that have become a staple of War on Drugs albums. While the songs were in a different order than they appear on albums, the presence of ambient, subtle synths between them created common ground between the band’s studio and live work. They managed, in other words, to make the live show’s structure feel like that of a War on Drugs album. The second tactic was leveraging the band members’ versatility in order to choose the best instruments to get the job done. There were anywhere from one to three musicians playing a keyboard instrument at any given time, with two of them jumping back onto guitar or saxophone when necessary. This versatility not only served to replicate much of the studio sound, but also freed up Granduciel to focus on being a true rock n’ roll frontman. His ability to play that role, in fact, created the biggest departure from the studio setting.
While Granduciel is an excellent guitarist, his talent is not always showcased on War on Drugs records. The production is so lush and layered that it can take a few listens to fully appreciate the complexity and originality of his guitar playing. On stage, however, he’s front and center with lights shining down on him. As his voice and guitar playing simultaneously crescendoed at the end of “Red Eyes,” for example, his virtuosity was impossible to miss. This same difference between the live and recorded material holds true, albeit to a lesser extent, for Jon Natchez’s saxophone playing. Unlike Clarence Clemons’ prominent sound in the E Street Band, to use a popular example, it’s not always clear when Natchez fades in and out on songs. I’m not sure if his saxophone was mic’d up louder on Thursday than it was in the studio, or if I just noticed it because I could see him playing, but the saxophone was much more noticeable in a live setting. For this fan of the group’s work, listening for these subtle shifts on top of the band’s remarkable, established sound was a great way to spend a Thursday night.