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The War on Drugs are a great live band, and now they have ‘Live Drugs’ to prove it | Review

Nick Cave and Tanya Tucker have impressive new live albums, too.

The War on Drugs at Johnny Brenda's in December 2018, with Tim Heidecker of Tim & Eric sitting in with them on “Arms Like Boulders.”
The War on Drugs at Johnny Brenda's in December 2018, with Tim Heidecker of Tim & Eric sitting in with them on “Arms Like Boulders.”Read moreDan DeLuca / File Photograph

The War on Drugs

Live Drugs

(Super High Quality *** 1/2)

Adam Granduciel is a perfectionist, a studio obsessive who builds up the War on Drugs’ atmospheric music from painstakingly layered guitars and keyboards on songs that cast a hypnotic spell as they embark on journeys of discovery.

Acclaimed albums like 2014′s Lost in the Dream and 2017′s Grammy-winning A Deeper Understanding are the product of Granduciel’s vision. But the Drugs are anything but a one-man band.

The other five members of the Philadelphia sextet, beginning with bass player Dave Hartley, all make key contributions to the Drugs’ studio effort — and step to the fore on stage, where they’ve become more and more impressive as a live unit that has mastered reimagining, not simply re-creating, Granduciel’s richly textured songs.

Before the pandemic, the band had been on track to release an album of new songs in 2020. (Last month, they performed one brand new one, “Ocean of Darkness,” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.)

Instead, they dug into the archives for Live Drugs, which was culled from the band’s 2017-18 tour. It’s the first release on the band’s Super High Quality label and is accompanied by a four-part Super High Quality podcast that premieres Nov. 23

The set list reaches back to 2008′s Wagonwheel Blues for the Dylanesque “Buenos Aires Beach,” includes a sterling cover of Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” and draws a concentration of songs from Lost in the Dream.

Three from that album — “Eyes to the Wind,” “Under the Pressure,” and “In Reverse” — bring Live Drugs to a crescendo. Each track takes its time moving from contemplation to catharsis, slowly strengthening before locking into overdrive and lifting off like a jet engine, like only a great live band can do.

— Dan DeLuca

Nick Cave

Idiot Prayer

(Bad Seeds Ltd ***)

On the heels of last year’s excellent Ghosteen, Nick Cave had scheduled a tour with the Bad Seeds that would have brought him to the Mann Center this past September. But the pandemic, of course, scuttled everything.

Instead, Cave filmed a solo performance last June, in part inspired by his 2019 “conversations” tour that merged audience Q&A with solo piano renditions of song requests. The starkly beautiful, surprisingly compelling film shows Cave seated at a grand piano in the middle of London’s cavernous, empty Alexandra Palace. It streamed for a paying audience in July and was released theatrically earlier this month.

The 85-minute soundtrack album serves as a toned-down Cave retrospective, including early Bad Seeds songs such as “Stranger than Kindness” and “The Mercy Seat,” Grinderman songs such as “Palaces of Montezuma,” recent works such as “Galleon Ship,” and one new song, the brief “Euthanasia.” It’s pristine, somber, and stately, with a spotlight on his earnest love songs.

The dominant tone is elegiac and heartfelt. It’s a formal recital, with none of his early goth-punk blues wildness.

It doesn’t display Cave’s range — although “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” turns impassioned and insistent, and “Higgs Boson Blues” builds to an intense climax — but highlights his thoughtful voice, his romantic piano playing, and his poetic lyrics.

Steve Klinge

Tanya Tucker

Live From the Troubadour

(Fantasy *** 1/2)

Last year, Tanya Tucker released her first album of new material in 17 years. With acclaimed singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile having a hand in most of the songs and Shooter Jennings producing, While I’m Livin' was one of the best records of 2019 and of Tucker’s once-tumultuous career. It found the country star digging deeper than ever as she balanced echoes of her hell-raising past with reflections on her own mortality.

Live From the Troubadour, recorded in Los Angeles with Tucker supported by a full band and backup singers, again finds her in top form on a set that ranges from her teen-sensation days of the ’70s to six selections from While I’m Livin.

Ballads such as “Would You Lay With Me (in a Field of Stone),” “The Wheels of Laredo,” and “Bring My Flowers Now” highlight Tucker’s tender and vulnerable side, her raspy drawl adding weathered character to her performances. Same for her inspired medley of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

Speaking of fire, Tucker brings plenty of it to country-rockers such as “Hard Time” and "It’s a Little Too Late,' the pungent country kiss-off “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” and the 100-proof honky-tonker “Texas (When I Die),” swaggering through them with palpable delight.

To finish, Tucker goes back to the start of her career for a rousing rendition of “Delta Dawn” (with an “Amazing Grace” intro). It drives home the point that Tucker still has plenty to give.

Nick Cristiano