Shot! Wolf Alice in Brighton
It was all about Ellie’s outstanding vocals in a performance that lacked some of the sparkle of their previous live shows
Wolf Alice are one of those young bands who have done the hard yards. They’ve achieved a level of success by constant touring, supporting anyone who’d have them and playing festivals up and down the country and more latterly, around the world. If not on the road playing gigs, they were doing whatever they could to promote themselves. My Love Is Cool, their 2015 debut was an album fizzing with promise and they earned a reputation for their live shows, even being named Best Live Band at last year’s NME Awards.
It didn’t harm them that their lead singer was a blonde-haired, guitar toting rock-chick or that her three band-mates each had something about them. I’ve seen them headline twice before: first in Southampton and then in Brighton at the Dome. I even got to meet Ellie when I her interviewed her before that Southampton show. I could see a bright future for the band.
And then I heard the first single from their sophomore album. It was called Yuk Fu and I hated it. A polarising, petulant, punk infused screamer of a song, it wasn’t the direction I was expecting Wolf Alice to go. Over time, my antipathy towards it has diminished, but it’s still not won me over.
Visions Of A Life, the album that followed, was recorded in LA with Justin Meldal-Johnsen at the helm. To my ears at least, it was somewhat of a disappointment. Second albums are notoriously difficult and few bands get them right. All too often, they are rushed affairs that come off the back of constantly touring the debut release.
Whether that was the case with Wolf Alice, I don’t know, but I have to say I just wasn’t that enamoured with it, especially the production. I had much the same feeling about their return to Brighton. Soundwise, you couldn’t fault them — especially Joel Amey’s drums which sounded immense — but I thought their performance lacked the vivacity I remember them having before.
It was exemplified by Ellie Rowsell’s moody ambience. Never the most outgoing of performers, she now comes across positively glacial. The 25-year-old’s long blonde locks are now short and dark and worn scraped back. And she’s shed her trademark under-eye glitter. Much of the time she spends looking down — no wonder they got dubbed shoegaze in their early days — and rarely does she interact with the audience. For that matter, neither do any of her bandmates apart from a brief paean to Brighton “We love it here, so this is a fucking treat!”
But it never really looked or felt like they were enjoying themselves. It seemed a spark or two were missing. The lighting was OK, nothing terribly interesting or memorable and when they projected something on the backdrop it was just a dull image of a few trees. Perhaps I’d been spoiled having seen memorable gigs by two other female-fronted bands — Goldfrapp and Blondie — the week before, or maybe I was just expecting something more special from a band renowned for their live shows.
Of the new songs, the standout — just as it is on the record — was the shimmering Don’t Delete The Kisses, where Ellie’s vocal versatility really shines: one moment she’s singing quietly, then softly speaking the words of the verse (similar to Bros from the first album) before exploding into the piercing chorus. Something about it reminds me of Lou Reed, even so, to my ears this is Wolf Alice at their most distinctive…and most promising.
Another excellent newbie— the all-too-fleeting Beautifully Unconventional also shows what the band are capable of when they choose to put on a performance.
As for the rest of the gig, I have to admit I still preferred the old songs especially Bros and Silk which were played back to back after Don’t Delete The Kisses. Many of Wolf Alice’s 19-song set — nine of which came from the new album — have a cinematic feel to them. What they cry out for is a live production that adds more visual interest beyond just a few lights. And some audience engagement from Ms Rowsell wouldn’t go amiss either.
Postscript: When you’ve seen a band or solo artist before, it gives you a different perspective when it comes to reviewing them. Not only do you have something to draw comparison to, but you’re able to judge whether or not they have progressed, stayed the same or even gone backwards. It’s quite different from reviewing an artist for the first time. If you’ve also interviewed the artist you’re reviewing it gives you yet another level of appreciation. And of course if you get to see significantly more gigs than most people, you also have many more experiences and insights upon which to shape your opinion.
Setlist: Heavenward | Yuk Foo | You’re A Germ | Your Loves Whore | St Purple & Green | Don’t Delete The Kisses | Bros | Silk | Lisbon | Formidable Cool | Planet Hunter | Beautifully Unconventional | Sadboy | Space & Time | Moaning Lisa Smile | Visions Of A Life | Fluffy || Blush | Giant Peach
“To me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image.”
Behind the image: All these images were shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the 75 1.8 lens and the camera’s built-in digital zoom using available light only. I was able to shoot the first three songs from the pit. My focus was almost entirely on Ellie. Having photographed her twice before I knew the challenges would be catching her at just the right time so she doesn’t look miserable and trying to avoid the ugly double microphone set up she uses being to close to her face. Perhaps the biggest challenge this time was the harsh lighting which would darken the entire area around her eyes. Her new shorter, slicker hairstyle also accentuated her hard expressions. It meant that many of my shots didn’t show her in a good light and for me, if a portrait doesn’t make the subject look good, I’d rather discard it than share it. Shot in Brighton on 20 November 2017.
Wolf Alice’s latest album Visions Of A Life is out now
Follow Wolf Alice on Twitter at @wolfalicemusic
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Read my interview with Ellie Rowsell here