Concert review: Wolf Alice

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A&R Music Bar, Columbus, OH – April 8, 2016

I always knew the line-blurring London indie rock quartet Wolf Alice, who I’ve seen billed more than once in the trades as a beguiling sort of cross between folk and grunge, was the real deal, but I also often found the band too reverential (or, if you like, referential) to the past to be able to endorse its present wholeheartedly, or at least without including that minor complaint as a caveat. My recent cross-genre year-end top twenty albums post, which tagged Alice’s insinuating full-length debut My Love is Cool as the #4 “non-metal” album of 2015, and its #10 longplayer overall, nevertheless damned it with more than a touch of faint praise, mostly for the frequency and dexterity with which the band overtly reminded me of someone else. Time passes, however, whether spent in light reflection or serious rumination, and so often renders such high-minded certainty an elastic, equivocal thing, and its wielder a fool. Though I did subconsciously shortchange Wolf Alice from practically the first moment I heard the band, a slight I have been in the organic, incremental process of rectifying ever since, I don’t believe I ever actually underestimated it. Bands either grab you or they don’t, after all. This one took two brimming fistfuls of shirt collar, but, instead of striking a threatening pose the way other young artists reflexively might, Alice just pulled me closer, slowly, progressively, deliberately. Whatever bolt of cloth I might’ve imagined they were cut from, there was undeniably something transcendent about those songs. Ellie Rowsell’s voice is an unassuming yet formidable instrument. The fact that almost any Wolf Alice lyric is as likely to be sung just above a low whisper as a low roar, cooed or, occasionally, screeched directly into a listener’s ear, presents a frankly invigorating challenge to critics seeking to pigeonhole them. These songs burrowed into my subconscious – just how far I initially underestimated – like few others I heard in 2015. That is the chief reason they were worthy of year-end recognition, or ecstatic visitation months later.

The A&R Bar comprises a hilariously inequitable one third of Columbus, Ohio’s downtown Promowest concert compound. With its prominent bar, limited floor space, and yawning columns casually obstructing views of its glorified ping pong table stage, it is arguably the least hospitable of the three venues – two separate holes in the wall stacked atop one another, flanking a gigantic, multi-purpose pavilion, the newly christened “Express LIVE!” – though an oddly prestigious one. Columbus hardly lacks for quality concert venues, of course, and I’ve often found myself bemused pondering the process that brings bands of any prominence to this one particular space, which for years I thought of as a bar first, second, and third, only even worth visiting as a last minute pre-game drinking destination before a show at Express. There is a method to the madness of Promowest – which operates a total of four quality, subtly symbiotic venues in town, plus an indoor/outdoor Express clone in Pittsburgh – or at least some sort of hierarchy. Bands that open shows at Express (f.k.a. the Lifestyle Communities Pavilion, or L.C.) are generally worthy to headline shows at A&R – or the venerable, larger, altogether more preferable/agreeable Newport Music Hall, near the Ohio State campus – whereas bands that open at A&R might plausibly headline The Basement, which, as the name suggests, is like A&R only smaller, and directly downstairs. I’ve seen enough outliers at all four spaces to proclaim the underlying science inexact, but sometimes it’s the incongruities that contribute to memorable nights. Give a band used to selling out clubs a chance at headlining a comparatively spacious hall and, with something additional now to prove, its core temperature invariably rises. By the same token, put a band used to doing solid business in halls in front of a sold out club contingent so jammed together they can barely move, and watch everyone involved move anyway, propelled by the urgency of the scene and the music combined.

This Wolf Alice show came as the serendipitous end punctuation on a several week period that had, quite against my will, seen me traveling almost non-stop to handle fraught family and business obligations out of state. Still exhausted, I was nevertheless beyond ready to cut loose. As always, I had meticulously calculated my optimal arrival time beforehand, and, for once, ended up completely sticking the landing. I parked in the lot behind the PW conclave, and, upon slipping through A&R’s front door, was almost immediately enveloped by the teeming, non-competitive, perfectly intermixed throngs of appreciable hipsters and fresh-faced college kids. I traced my path along the wall-length bar until I noticed an inlet carved into the crowd about halfway back, and situated myself therein. At this position, from a 45-degree angle instead of a traditional straight-on vantage point, I could take in the stage with surprisingly little difficulty. Minutes stretched into further minutes, rather than anything more ominous. The nervous energy that is a natural by-product of anticipation became a welcome but minor factor. A cute girl the height of my crooked elbow stopped to effusively compliment my Clutch hoodie on her way into the crowd, and I suddenly knew that this show was going to be a spotless good time. The club was packed and humming, and I was just thrilled to be home again, let alone waiting for this particular band to take the stage. Wolf Alice had spent the past few months apparently gallivanting its way across both its home continent and mine, often opening, in a fairly sublime pairing, for Scottish electronic indie royalty Chvrches. Tonight was a headlining off-night. After a fawning but charming into from a local DJ, the four skinny, plainclothes Brits squeezed onto the A&R’s modest stage*, plugged in, tuned this bit or that, then kicked directly into “Your Love’s Whore”, one of Cool’s rocky early standouts. We were all off to the races.

*Enough days spent pre-gaming before events across the alcove have lent me considerable perspective on just how physically constrictive the A&R stage is. If it looks unduly like something that was shoehorned into some bar on the distant, theoretical possibility of hosting live music one day, that’s because it obviously was. Still doesn’t explain to me how that stage has borne significant acts through the years as dynamic and disparate as The Hold Steady, The Sword, Melvins, and The Black Dahlia Murder, among others.

A band touring extensively on its debut album faces a few interesting challenges. How to craft/justify a headlining set, given a body of work that adds up to, in some cases, far less than an hour total? How to play the same set of songs – which, given your youth, probably comprise the bulk of the original material produced in your entire career to date – every (frigging) night without snapping, self-sabotaging, or growing terminally bored? How to make the show, if not unpredictable, at least involving for a crowd that can plausibly telegraph your every move? Even among recent intros, My Love is Cool is uncommonly strong and sonically varied, and the band used both factors to its distinct advantage, attacking the album’s running order with a meat cleaver and rearranging the pieces into a disorienting but affecting alternate history. This had the effect of muting a good portion of the momentum that Cool is able to generate and sustain over its first half, though never to the detriment of the set itself. Those songs, after all, are now “hits” in the idealized, imaginary bizarro world where Wolf Alice is holding court not in packed, sweaty clubs but arenas, and hits are usually saved for last. Reverse engineering My Love is Cool for a live setting inevitably shone a spotlight on perhaps underappreciated tracks like the airy “Freazy” and cacophonous “Lisbon”, and found them pleasingly ready for prime time. For listeners for whom Cool is the band’s only entry point, tracks like “90-Mile Beach” and “Blush” from the 2013 EP of the same name served as de facto new songs, and folded into the greater set with nary a stumble or visible seam. It was even a little hard to discern how much of the audience fell into that former camp, and how many were operating with prior knowledge, so lusty and loving was the general response to everything played. In all, the seventeen-song set contained all but one from the 2015 breakthrough – plus the EP tracks, something new identified online as “Yuk Foo”, and a couple of covers I wasn’t hip enough to process – and, despite a hiccup or shudder here and there, ably recalled and reinforced the album’s original potency.

I missed Columbus so much while I was away, working under pressures and through circumstances that were almost uniformly alien and unsettling for me. That period of time effectively shuttered my work on this blog, and perhaps fundamentally altered how I’ll approach it going forward, though never was the matter of “if” truly in question, only “when”. During the intro, the local DJ was effusive in her praise of not merely the band but the sold out crowd, referencing past Wolf Alice shows as one-offs, openers, and at station festivals that they might have seen, and pausing after each mention for seemingly ever-escalating applause. Already tucked into the best vantage point I’d ever enjoyed at A&R, I reflected in that moment on just how lucky my community was to have a passionate, truly independent radio station – the great CD102.5 – intent on fostering those sorts of relationships between artists and fans, and how fortunate I was to be able to count myself as one among that community, even on an intermittent basis. Then Wolf Alice took the stage and owned it. Rowsell’s demure but amused performance posture was a marked counterpoint to that of hyperactive bassist Theo Ellis, who pogoed, sneered, and periodically mounted monitors at the stage’s bleeding edge to egg on the crowd in the moments before the set again inevitably softened. Joel Amey was a ragged but engaging presence behind the drum kit, and his pitch perfect vocal rendition of the gorgeous Cool standout “Swallowtail” was arguably the night’s highlight. Rowsell throughout proved herself more than capable in person of the understated, oft disarming melodic gymnastics she delivers on record. The spare, haunting “Turn to Dust” here opened the encore instead of the album, a gentle icicle’s caress that left effortlessly raised gooseflesh and dizzied, shaking heads in its wake. Two songs later, those heads began to nod and bob one final time to the undeniable push/pull of “Moaning Lisa Smile”, and a near-perfect evening of music ended on the same wave of appreciative buzz as it had begun. It wasn’t yet spring in Ohio as I headed up the sidewalk toward my car, and the Friday evening chill was not only palpable but bracing in the best way. Despite having technically spent the preceding twenty-four hours in town, I wasn’t well and truly “home” until that moment.

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