The War On Drugs Kick Off Tour in Toronto with an Exultant Show, Califone in Steady Tow
The presumption is probably safe that when a musical layman hears the name of a band they assume a sort of democracy. Who of us has been in a band? How do they operate from the inside? Do most bands operate similarly or differently? Oddly enough the former is probably more true than the latter. Which is to say that most bands are probably more similar than they are different. Inevitably even the most democratic-seeming of groups has a musical and business leader and invariably they’re one in the same. Some groups are more group groups but the groups on the band this evening were decidedly of the songwriter/ sideman tradition. Not that any of that would be evident at eye level. And even saying it is a little uncomfortable and feels like it might take away from the music which it should not.
The fact remains that Califone really means Tim Rutili and a revolving ensemble of musical collaborators. Just as his musical cohort Eric D. Johnson is a pseudonym for Fruit Bats and their pal Andy Cabic for Vetiver. You wouldn’t think it from the live show but the same could be said of Adam Granduciel and The War On Drugs although that’s no big secret.
Califone (and later on this tour The Barr Brothers) are inspired choices as each opener accents aspects of a whimsical, cinematic and Americana-based sound all the groups share at times. To a half full and attentive throng Rutili took his group through the paces of a small sampling of the music he’s recorded as Califone over the years. Set opener Vampiring Again (from 2003’s Quicksand/ Cradlesnakes) took us back to the earliest beginnings of Califone which grew out of the Perishable Records family and a handful of musicians including Johnson, his bandmate/ engineer/notable Canadian Graeme Gibson and Rutili’s frequent collaborators Jim Becker and Ben Massarella. Members of Califone have featured prominently on Fruit Bats various releases such as the forthright Ruminant Band. The second song out of the gate brought the catalogue more fully up to the present with a song from the same period 2012’s Electric Fence from Good Weather Sometimes Follows Bad People. While Califone is known for their often sweeping and cinematic sound the music is always drapery to frame Rutili’s words. The lyrics for instance to Electric Fence alone deserve to be printed in their entirety and might easily be confused for quite a good prose poem:
Lit a blue tip match off the white in your eye
It’s apples and cigarettes on cold water drive
Give your belly to the lions and your throat to all their babies
The power washer screams like a panther
Your rope and scar and rabbit hearts
Jesus drains electric fences to fill you again
Sailor’s mouth and falling brail
Don’t fall away, don’t fall away
You sleep like an angel with sparrows beneath your eyelids
Wash it down in a fountain, lean into the kill
The mayflies all explode when they come to the coil at the driving range under blocks of fake light
A broken feel, electric fence
Don’t fall away, don’t fall away
The rest of Califone’s set, their first with The War On Drugs this tour as Rutili noted, ran through 2013’s Stitches almost in its entirety. Califone is known for albums that are often individually thematic and based on a dream (Heron King Blues) or a silent film (Deceleration 1 and 2) a quality reflected in the title Movie Music Kills A Kiss. This was followed by a really confident number Moses, the title track Stitches, Bells Breaks Arms, Magdalene and Frosted Tips. Califone albums have also been based on stories (All My Friends Are Funeral Singers) and Rutili et. al. fit in a jubilant rendition of Funeral Singers just before the end of their set.
New York, Califone’s hometown of Chicago and The War On Drugs own Philadelphia get the big bands on the weekends. Due to the subline vaguaries of tour logistics and accounting Toronto tends to get more than its fair share of midweek or in this case Monday night shows. Which is not to say that work, rain or anything else kept the working stiffs and rock and roll kids away. Tickets which had sold out instantly were no doubt going for cocaine prices outdoors. From album to album The War On Drugs have experienced a doubling rate, of venues and ticket prices, that if it continues at this pace will have them playing arenas and sheds for $64 a ticket by the summer of 2016. When the band hit the stage the audience had neatly packed in like a very polite tin of sardines.
Opener Burning brought the wash of sound, the debt to Spaceman 3 more evident in the live show then Bruce Springsteen or Dire Straits, that we’ve come to know as The War On Drugs over the crowd. Nodding to the back catalogue front man Adam Granduciel took the group through Arms Like Boulders from 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues and Comin’ Through from 2010’s Future Weather EP. The group’s sound is so distinctive on this album that even these songs were painted with its patina and seemed slightly out of place if only because the audience would have likely been quite fine with a straight run through of Lost In The Dream (released a propos on Secretly Canadian). Which is what they got moving forward.
By the mid-set mark the obligatory Under the Pressure released the soul’s valve deep below. Alternating peals of tears or laughter both came with welcome. In Reverse and An Ocean In Between The Waves both got epic treatments building momentum, gravity and volume that few bands shy of My Morning Jacket can pull off with any semblance of melody. Buenos Aires Beach, again from Wagonwheel Blues, then came as a welcome respite from the dionysian vibe that kept churning. Closing out the set the beautiful Red Eyes and one of- if not the- hallmark song on the album Eyes To The Wind.
Live there is no doubt that The War On Drugs are a phenomenal force to be reckoned with. Much of the dynamic seems to come out of the interplay between Granduciel on lead guitar and David Hartley on bass whose laid back vibe provides the perfect counterpoint to Granduciel’s rock star chicanery. The same is true of the dynamic between the phenomenal drummer Patrick Berkery and Hartley. Robbie Bennett on a huge array of keyboards and synths clearly makes much of the sound happen live. Ironically most of the definitive saxophone parts on the record were played by Toronto session ace Joseph Shabason (known best for his work with Destroyer) – who was clearly on the road with his group Diana or another outfit or an appearance would have been essential. What the four of them can’t pull off live gets added by another two sidemen on keys/guitar and saxes/synths making the sound as full as one could possibly make it. For the listener there is a constant exultant feeling that the dam just might burst but knowing that it won’t.
But its Adam that sits alone on the album’s cover by a window in his home in a craven posture that suggests the angst, loneliness and paranoia that inform much of the album’s lyrics. Bands even the most bombastic and democratic ones take heavier tolls on some members than others. In the wake of the success of 2011’s Slave Ambient – Granduciel struggled to adapt back to everyday life. In grappling with the demons that came out of that period he had the lyrical core of Lost In The Dream. Clearly too he had found much of the strength he would need for the next chapter. Despite the appearance of solidarity he was a man alone, stating: “This wasn’t a band record. This was a solo record. I knew that. They’ve [War on Drugs’ albums] all been solo records.”
But as your heart reaches up into your throat, and your soul ache takes five (as the entire security detail seemed to do periodically as if to promote a partially decriminalized environment for marijuana) one is not thinking about notion’s of agency, collaboration, causation and chance in the songwriting process. Hopefully one is dancing their blues away, or at least swaying. Encores Best Night from Slave Ambient and the inevitable Suffering gave the audience one last chance to get their yaya’s out. And they did.
*The author publishes his work at Northern Heads