Last year, with no Brighton stop on their first major headline tour, I went to Southampton to see Wolf Alice. Almost exactly six months later, they made their long-awaited return to Brighton with a show at the Dome, a venue which they had tweeted earlier in the day they were “honoured to play.”
I was really impressed with their performance at that Southampton show, so much so that I ended my review by saying “Wolf Alice are (one of) the two UK breakout bands of 2015. Expect to see them high up the bill at festivals next year and don’t be surprised if, with a bit more stage craft, Wolf Alice go on to headline. They really are that good.”
So what difference does half a year make? Well, just last month at the Brits, they lost out to Catfish and the Bottlemen for British Breakthrough Act and this month they were announced as one of the headliners at the Glass Butter Beach festival in Wales. No doubt then that Wolf Alice are a band on the ascendence.
Further proof came outside the venue, where touts were offering to buy or sell, something you don’t ordinarily see at the Dome. What’s more, that very evening Radio One was broadcasting Annie Mac’s chat with lead singer Ellie Rowsell. Wolf Alice are clearly doing something right and an expectant sell-out crowd were made to wait two and half hours to see them.
That meant enduring Swim Deep, a band I first saw at The Great Escape back in 2013. Three years on, they’ve hardly made an impression and you have to wonder why they’re even still together. Musically anonymous, they are notable for just one thing: they are one of the worst-dressed bands I’ve seen. They all look like they were outfitted by Oxfam. The brightest stage lights I think I’ve ever witnessed, was great for the photographers, but only highlighted the band’s sartorial shortcomings.
By contrast, Wolf Alice took to the stage in total darkness. As is de rigueur for bands who’ve made it, they were all dressed in shades of black and white. Indeed, apart from the predominantly gold lighting, the only colour was Theo Ellis’s shocking pink guitar strap and Ellie Rowsell’s red bra straps. However, whilst both still wore glitter under their eyes, the sparkle that so impressed me in Southampton seemed to be missing from their performance. As well as having seen them live, I’ve watched and loved some of their recent gigs on YouTube. Their electric performance last year at Lollapalooza in Berlin was especially memorable and I really liked their Glasto show.
This time however, there was a listlessness about the band, as if they’ve played this set too many times. Rightly or wrongly, Ellie’s sourpuss mien gave the impression she was bored with performing yet another show. And while they didn’t put on a bad show, it was one in which you felt they were going through the motions and almost playing for themselves, rather than audience. Sonically, it was also a little dull. Early on, Ellie’s vocals seemed to be buried in the mix and Joel’s drums sounded flat.
Whilst the sound did improve, the show never quite took off. The few comments that came from the stage such as “Is everyone still with us?” appeared to affirm the band knew this wasn’t them at their best. At one point, Theo even name-checked The Haunt as the last place they played in Brighton, before being put right by Joel that it wasn’t.
If I hadn’t seen them put on such a killer show just six months previously, I probably would have enjoyed this gig a lot more, but having set the bar so high, this time they fell short of delivering what they’re capable of. And talking of highs, even Ellie’s high pitch yelps started to grate.
Success, when it comes, can be difficult for bands. As Swim Deep have found, it can also be elusive, but for a few like Wolf Alice, success (critical or otherwise) can arrive all of a sudden and dealing with it can be just as challenging as never achieving it. The problem of course is you never know if and when it’s going to happen and when it does, there’s a huge pressure to exploit the opportunity. Often that means doing one more tour.
And that’s the feeling I had with this gig. Rather than the dazzling performance I’d hoped for, it was just a little jaded. Some time off, a second album’s worth of material to add some fresh songs to the set and a re-boot of their lighting, will all help bring back the sparkle. Maybe I expected too much, or perhaps there were other factors that impaired their performance, but you can only judge a gig by what you hear and see. And for me, this wasn’t the beast of a show I was expecting.
Words: Gary Marlowe
Photo: Images Out Of The Ordinary
Follow Wolf Alice at @wolfalicemusic
Wolf Alice’s debut album My Love Is Cool is out now