It's not often that the first round of touring for a record feels like a victory lap.
It doesn't really matter who you are. You could be U2 or a regular outfit on the toilet circuit; every time you bring out a new album, you should have something to prove. There should be something slightly adversarial about the early gigs. You should feel the need to prove yourself to the audience in front of you.
That longstanding law, though, doesn't really feel as if it applies to The War On Drugs tonight. After all, their breakthrough third LP - 2014's Lost in the Dream - was a genuine crossover hit, to the extent that it went gold in the UK and, bearing in mind the gradual onset of the net it cast, there'll doubtless be plenty of first timers taking in one or both of this two-night stand; when they initially hit Manchester behind Lost in the Dream, in May 2014, they played the 900-capacity Academy 2. Tonight's room holds 3,500, just as it did last night.
If it feels as if they're still riding the wave of Lost in the Dream, is probably because its follow-up - August's sumptuous A Deeper Understanding - did nothing to alienate the classic rock fans who'd heard snatches of Petty, Springsteen and Knopfler three years ago. Instead, frontman and bandleader Adam Granduciel burrowed further down that particular rabbit hole.
Lost in the Dream and A Deeper Understanding are carefully crafted counterparts, and that explains why, between them, they dominate the set tonight. This iteration of The War on Drugs is a six-piece, meaning that all bases are covered; the wandering saxophone, the soaring synths, the myriad guitar solos.
It’s on that latter front that Granduciel, a bashful frontman to put it mildly, really comes to the fore. He blazes a scorching trail through "Holding On", and then retreats into nuanced, minimalist, thoroughly intelligent territory on "Strangest Thing". This isn’t to say that everything’s polished; towards the end of "Nothing to Find", he slams his harmonica to the ground in frustration - quite what was his bugbear is not immediately obvious.
Still, the group’s limited interaction with the near-capacity crowd is complimentary, if vague; Manchester is apparently a home away from home, with the band having been coming here since 2008, but the cafes and bars they pay tribute to are not name-specific. What we do get are uncut runs through the big hitters; try finding a rock and roll song written since the turn of the century that sounds as utterly enormous as set closer "Under the Pressure" does tonight.
No reasonable member of any audience on this current War on Drugs jaunt would claim that they weren’t the consummate rock and roll band; they’re incredibly tight and compositionally generous. Whether or not they could put together a set that relied a little more on urgency and a little less on Les Paul noodling is, of course, another issue entirely. But that’s an argument for next time. For now, if you’re after soaring heartland rock, Granduciel is your man.