In a dark, sweltering cinema screen in central London, Wolf Alice are sat in front of a crowd of people waiting for them to perform live for the first time since 2019. “I hope I don’t have a panic attack,” quips bassist Theo Ellis as the four musicians settle down on their stools and begin a short acoustic set.
Despite such a long time away from the stage – and from the live experience generally, as both artists and fans – the band slip right back into things naturally. That is to say, with a performance of great beauty and that flexes their creativity.
There are plenty of songs on ‘Blue Weekend’, their third album that’s at the centre of tonight’s event, that suit the acoustic treatment and some of those get aired here. Opener ‘How Can I Make It OK?’ sounds even more divine stripped back to its core, Ellie Rowsell’s voice soaring beautifully over Joel Amey’s shuffling drum beat. ‘Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love)’ – the record’s folkiest cut – doesn’t have to stray too far from its original form, while ‘The Last Man On Earth’ is possibly even more emotional than the record’s piano-led version.
It’s on ‘Smile’, though, that the biggest reworking takes place. It’s not an obvious contender for a sit-down, socially distanced gig and not an electric guitar in sight given that, on the album, it absolutely goes off. But tonight, Wolf Alice transform it into something entirely new, its bursts of noise replaced by Joff Oddie’s gentle guitar twangs and Rowsell’s barbed words becoming deceptively soothing in their fresh musical context, only to sucker-punch you when you process what she’s singing.
After a quick throwback to the band’s first album with ‘Bros’, it’s time for the second phase of the night – one which really highlights artistic and inventive ambitions that are befitting for one of the world’s best bands. Together with cinematographer and director Jordan Hemingway, Wolf Alice have written a short film set to ‘Blue Weekend’, which can also be split up to form music videos for each track. From ‘The Beach I’, which sees Rowsell despairing in her bedroom, it’s an emotional ride that opens up your tear ducts and makes you want to run wild all at the same time.
‘The Beach I’ suddenly becomes claustrophobic and intense when Rowsell’s bathtub overflows and she appears fighting to stay above water in a stormy sea. On ‘Delicious Things’ she takes a black cab version of an Uber Pool, squashed into the back of the taxi with a rotating cast of strangers and bandmates. Towards the end of the song, when she sings “I don’t belong here, but it really is quite fun here”, her expression changes from distant and detached to eyes glimmering with mischief and excitement.
Other characters come in and out of the narrative, like the man who does karaoke to ‘How Do I Make It OK?’ or the guy Rowsell runs into the toilets to avoid during ‘Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall In Love), but it’s Wolf Alice who thread the story together. When it ends on ‘The Beach II’, we join them on the top deck of a bus, singing along with each other and getting lightly lairy until they each reach their respective stops. It’s a heartwarming way to close the film out – the boys kissing Rowsell on the head, before leaving her alone – and one that makes you long for the din of the night bus after a silly night out.
The film, performance, and, of course, the album itself remind us of something else. The band that created them are one of the greatest we’ve got – able to craft exquisite songs that hit you deep in your soul and match them with other creative expressions that make just as big of an impact on you. Wolf Alice are in their imperial phase right now – don’t be surprised if they never come out of it.