The last time Wolf Alice embarked on a headline tour of the UK, it was in support of their second album, Visions Of A Life, writes Louis Griffin. The band were graduating from their status as buzzy upstarts, proving wrong the record label bosses who told them they had to pick just one of their disparate influences - “you can be Florence and the Machine or Patti Smith”. Indeed, they were fast becoming critical darlings, and a genuine cultural force to boot, winning the Mercury Music Prize and touring with Foo Fighters.
They were a band aware of how precarious their new status was, but also one enjoying their new-found freedoms. There was a palpable sense of them relaxing into their rockstar status, finding their feet on stage, seeing how far they could push the envelope. It also felt, even then, that the band had designs on something larger. There was an implicit understanding of the pop machinery behind some of their biggest tracks – you need only look at unlikely anthem Don’t Delete The Kisses to see how huge choruses blended seamlessly with the band’s dreamy guitars and confessional lyrics.
Ellie Roswell Theo Ellis Courtesy of Finn McKenzie
So, now that they return to Rock City in the wake of their first Number 1 album with Blue Weekend, it’s thrilling to see those concepts followed to their natural conclusion. The band feel imperial, with no hint of self-doubt behind the swaggering rock-isms. But neither is that to say that they’ve lost that homegrown charm that provides a window into their world. Ellie Rowsell and co. may be “in Los Angeles” on standout new track Delicious Things, but they still pause half-way through to phone home and ask “is Mum in? It’s just me, I felt like calling”. Indeed, the tension between these two pillars of their performance – winning vulnerability, and hard-won authority – is what drives so many of these songs. Opener Smile feels directly addressed to those who doubted the band, and perhaps more specifically Rowsell:
“I am what I am, and I'm good at it / And you don't like me? Well, that isn't fucking relevant.”
Choosing to step out to the swirling sub-bass of Blue Weekend’s heaviest moment is an inspired choice, because although the band trade in both introversion and extroversion, their live set relies on the momentum of the latter. It’s only after establishing their ability to reduce 2000 people to a whirlpool of bodies that they apply the same technique to reduce them to tears. But it has to be said that although the band is at their most authoritative when storming through guitar anthems, the moments that are most unforgettable are their heart-breaking ballads. When the opening synths of Silk began half-way through the set, there was an audible intake of breath, and it was telling that their encore consisted of The Last Man on Earth, and a glorious, glitterball-assisted rendition of Don’t Delete The Kisses.
In fact, the lighting and staging felt almost like a sixth member of the band at times (Wolf Alice currently tour with Ryan Malcolm, formerly of Superfood, on keys). They brought the same level of production to Rock City that would have befitted a show triple the size. The band were flanked by rotating strobes the height of the stage, resulting in a curtain of light that spilled out across the venue like a lighthouse beam. The effect was spellbinding, elevating moments that would have been triumphant anyway into something quite transcendent.
This kind of attention to detail is entirely revealing of where Wolf Alice are headed as a band. They clearly have not only the ambition to become the biggest band in the country, but the means, too. As they continue their ascension into the heady heights of pop, it’s a genuine privilege to see them play Rock City. There’s no avoiding the feeling that it might be one of the last times they perform in a room as small as this.
Edited by: Joe Hughes
Images courtesy of Finn McKenzie.