Every few years, a great rock band emerges from England and comes to our shores around Splendour In the Grass. This time, it’s Wolf Alice. Their no-nonsense set put music at the forefront and a lack of theatrics complements the dysphoria in many of their tracks. In the underground Oxford Art Factory, it felt like we’d travelled back in time 20 years – and the all-black band attire (except for drummer Joel Amey in red plaid) certainly added to that.
Wolf Alice kicked off their set with ‘She’ from their first EP – the quiet-loud dynamics and heavy-handed electric guitar got the crowd’s attention from the start. Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell maintained a cool composure – there was no smiling or “happy to be here,” at least for the first 15 minutes of the set. The room stayed serious for the following new tracks ‘Your Loves Whore’ and ‘You’re A Germ’ and during the latter, all four musicians had their heads down, strumming away, hair over the face.
For a sound which evokes grunge and praises elongated instrumental breaks, their live set was slick. And a key indication that the audience took the performance seriously was the dwindling line of people buying drinks mid-set. It was great to see their pre-chorus build-ups and incredible guitar riffs come to life while the stage effects matched their dynamics, shifting from streaming red with smoke to a soft yellow.
Of course, the serious rock attitude faded over the course of their set – understandably the foursome were psyched to see a sold-out crowd singing along to their songs, over 10,000 miles from their hometown. Its worth noting that Wolf Alice have performed at festivals such as Glastonbury, but it didn’t feel like they’d hugely lowered their energy for a smaller venue. Rowsell rocked double hand-horns and bassist Theo Ellis motioned for the crowd to cheer louder.
A definite highlight was the group’s cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Games’ (which was a part of said Glastonbury set) and it came as a seamless surprise following track ‘Blush.’ The slowed down tempo alongside Rowsell’s moody vocals made the 80s ballad a little more melancholy, and again it felt like we were back in the height of grunge, when she whispered: “this world is only going to break your heart.”
The perk of attending a gig at a smaller venue is the chance to always see what’s going on stage – from adjusting guitar pedals to motioning cues to each other, it brings an intimacy that you don’t really get at a festival (not that the Wolf Alice SITG set won’t be one to remember.) It was a perfect gig for the kids who discovered Nirvana a decade after their prime and encore track ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’ wrapped up the grungey antics: “It is never enough, no it is never enough.”