Hordes of show-goers huddled in icy clusters outside Huxleys Neue Welt last week, warming stomach cockles with bottles of beer beneath cloud formations of cigarette smoke. The venue itself was a somewhat curious place; wedged between a bowling alley, a supermarket, and a gambling den, it was rimmed with the colored lights of the shopping complex on its skirt and echoed the mood of a high-school dance hall. There was even a fairground-style snack bar in the front foyer, equipped with salty pretzels and sandwiches to nourish the crowd crossing the gymnasium floor. Huxleys is also considerably larger than Heimathafen, the venue originally intended for the show—and luckily so, as it nonetheless managed to sell out. This was a remarkable feat, just seven months after The War on Drugs last swung through town for a show at the considerably smaller Bi Nuu; clearly, Adam Granduciel has amassed an increasingly devout following in the capital since the release of fourth LP, “Lost In The Dream,” earlier this year.
Opening act Steve Gunn put on a rollicking, gently rolling performance that licked with smooth guitar at wintery cheeks as they peeled off woolen layers. The crowd that gathered to watch Gunn was impressive in size for the early hour, though this was perhaps also partly due to the regulation forbidding the use of the smoking balcony until between sets, which left a vaguely impatient line of nicotine addicts pacing in the wings like birds awaiting release. The audience was a wonderfully varied conglomeration of faces, from young shaggy-haired boys in baseball caps to older couples enjoying a weeknight step-out, mixing and marbling to create an intimate Monday evening atmosphere. The collectively bubbling fervor that rose during the interval was, however, palpable; as the band crept onto the stage, applause thundered in rounds like a tiered fountain, reluctant in spite of itself to cease.
The set moved back and forth through the discography to draw a healthy draft from the spring of each album, though “Lost In The Dream” was predominant. It included powerful renditions of “Red Eyes” and “Under The Pressure,” which soared into extended harmonies; steadily unfurling solos, bending strings, and insistent drums pressed closely into one another, adding a dramatic element that is less pronounced on previous records. What was a little surprising was how wonderfully eighties-infused the sound was; the guitar was slightly elastic, the keyboard touched with slick wooze. Perhaps the most formidable accompaniment throughout the new tracks was that of the baritone saxophone, which rumbled and roared beneath the layers like a tugboat, providing a robust support to delicate, tinkling piano hooks and Granduciel’s gentle, ocean-like voice.
The performance of the album’s title track brought the mood to a stripped-back hush, touched with melancholy; the guitars stepped into the shadows as Granduciel crooned and lilted, interspersing vocals with throbbing harmonica. “Slave Ambient” and “Future Weather” were certainly not forgotten amongst the grandeur of their successor, and were embraced by long-time fans of the band. An early appearance was “Comin’ Through,” a hushed number that pulled back into itself like an evening flower. The end of the set was the most upbeat moment of the night, with a fantastic performance of “Baby Missiles” that skipped and turned with joyous vigor.
Overall, there was an immense feeling of patience and grace; the band was ecstatic to be there, the audience were ecstatic to have the band there, and it resulted in a warm exchange of affection that saw the set ride close to the two-hour mark, blissfully unaware of itself. The encore included a vamped-up cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue,” Granduciel lilting the lyrics with the appropriate twang. In fact, the encore stretched itself out to such an extent that the audience was left a little amazed at its luck; it was Granduciel who repeatedly offered his gratitude, announcing Berlin as his favorite city to play. Once the band eventually slipped into the wings and the houselights illuminated threads of flushed and smiling faces, it was safe to name the pleasure very much ours.