(War On Drugs, possibly during one of the soaring extended climaxes. Photo by Peter Dovgan)
WAR ON DRUGS/SPOON
Sydney Opera House forecourt, December 4
IN THEORY, THESE TWO BANDS, formed a dozen years and practically a whole country apart, don’t fit, and plonking them together on Sydney Harbour with a freshly berthed floating hotel (which had unceremoniously honked its arrival during the set of impressive opening act, Indigo Sparke) parked alongside and time/noise restrictions hovering, can’t promise a Christmas miracle.
Spoon, from Texas, have mostly brisk songs that are febrile, a little prickly, the instrumental peaks more inclined to bursts of maelstrom than grandeur, sparking head bobbing/knee flexing across the forecourt. They dress like indie rock dads not trying too hard but not giving up the look, and have song titles like Don’t You Evah, Got Nuffin and Rent I Pay.
The War On Drugs, from Philadelphia, play midtempo songs of winding paths and open-ended emotions that inevitably reach soaring extended climaxes which at times provoke some loose-shoulder dad dancing before them. They dress like an old school band of we’re-not-stars-we’re-musicians – unruly long locks blown across their faces, mix-and-match clothes probably found at the end of the tour bus bunkbed that morning, some questionable facial hair choices – and have song titles like An Ocean In Between The Waves, Harmonia’s Dream and Occasional Rain.
Theories don’t amount to a hill of beans though because this combination works a treat.
(Brisk and febrile - Spoon. Photo by Peter Dovgan.)
Firstly, Spoon’s set list provokes glee (“It’s a greatest hits collection,” beams my friend halfway through the show), with energy that is perfect pre-sunset fare: The Way We Get By’s piano romping, rhythm jumping, Double J-made-flesh sparkiness; the English bar band swing of The Underdog (think Nick Lowe in wide suit and wry grin). Then I Turn My Camera On’s blend of funky reggae and white boy rock and the beefier take on the wiry edginess of Tom Verlaine’s downtown New York in Rent I Pay feels like a segue, a transition point at least, to War On Drugs.
Under the night sky then the Philadelphians move into something quite seductive in its mood creation: not dolorous, for Spoon’s effect lingers, but an active meditative state. Here the assumed thickness of the sound - multiple keys, multiple guitars, drone bass, solid-state drums - never materialises.
Instead, there is clarity and space, beautifully balanced and mixed in less than ideal circumstances. Theirs is an encompassing environment, not an overwhelming one: no one stands above, the drums and bass knit things together, and each solo is an extension of a collective enterprise not an imposition of one will.
Once again it is clear that War On Drugs is a classic rock band for people who, having cut their teeth on bands like Spoon, would rather eat their elbows before admitting they liked classic rock. It is Dire Straits and Christian years Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd smoking up Bruce Springsteen, Alan Parsons producing Neil Young, Grateful Dead engulfing Bryan Adams (and yes it hurts to even mention him in this context).
War On Drugs might sing in in the night’s penultimate song, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, that “I need a chance to be reborn”, but this double bill suggests what we’re getting is more satisfying than that – a connected, continuing life.
War On Drugs and Spoon play:
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, December 7
Riverstage, Brisbane, December 9
Kings Park, Perth, December 11
A version of this review ran originally in The Sydney Morning Herald