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Emotional noise: Wolf Alice shreds in San Francisco

Ellie Rowsell, lead singer of British indie-grunge band Wolf Alice. (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

Joel Amey had been up all night, but unless he had told me, I wouldn’t have known it. Two hours before taking the stage last Thursday at The Chapel in San Francisco’s Mission District, the drummer of rising British rock group Wolf Alice seemed alert, alive, and fully present in the buzzing pre-concert chaos. Sipping a cup of black tea, he reflected on his first visit to San Francisco at the age of fifteen, marveling at how far he and the band have come. “Even then I had every romantic notion of being in a band, of being a performer, of playing live,” he told me. “I thought, ‘F**k! Maybe one day I’ll play in America!’ [Now] It’s our fourth performance in San Francisco, our third sold-out show. Why would I tarnish that because I’m tired?”

Even after 48 sleepless hours, it was clear that Amey had every intention of putting his all into the night’s performance. He exuded the seriousness and capability of a professional seasoned by multiple tours, but still glowed with the genuine enthusiasm of a teenager nurturing rock-star dreams. This blend of professionalism and unadulterated passion ended up characterizing the night’s show. Throughout their 16-song set, Wolf Alice drew equally from a wealth of technical expertise and a wellspring of emotional energy. Transitioning smoothly from high-volume head-bangers to more reflective, multi-layered compositions, they proved themselves as professionals without sacrificing the vibrancy and vulnerability that’s won over audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. And from their soaring opening number to the celebratory encore (in which more than a little champagne was sprayed on the ecstatic crowd), there was no question that they had fun while they were at it.

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The sold-out show took place at the Chapel, an intimate venue in San Francisco’s Mission District. (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

The band began the show with “Your Love’s Whore,” which opened with a tense, precise guitar riff and swelled into a soaring chorus driven by lead singer Ellie Rowsell’s flawless vocals.  Joff Oddie, the band’s lead guitarist and primary melodic mastermind, exhibited a commanding presence from the first few bars, and bassist Theo Ellis shone on exposed, pulsing lines. Between the band’s four members, it’s impossible to identify a weak link – each displayed unmistakable mastery of their musical responsibilities. For the first few songs, the talents of Oddie and Roswell were on particularly vivid display – bright guitar phrasings and tender, perfectly pitched lyrics (written mostly by Rowsell) gave “Freazy” and “Bros” a warm, wistful feel.

But soon enough, they switched gears with the snarling, sassy “You’re a Germ.” As Rowsell took bold liberties with vocal distortion and Amey sustained a frenzied, uptempo beat, the crowd went wild for what is decidedly one of the grimier numbers on the band’s debut album, My Love Is Cool. The band’s style has been described by UK music publication Clash as “the love child of folk and grunge,” and both influences were clearly on display throughout the set. There’s no question that Wolf Alice can rock, but it’s their ability to downshift, to hover comfortably in that strange middle ground between folk-tinged lyricism and all-out rock and roll, that truly sets them apart.

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Opening acts Drenge and Made Violent joined the band onstage for a celebratory, concert-closing rendition of “Moaning Lisa Smile.” (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

This versatility was particularly apparent as the band transitioned from the frenzy of “You’re a Germ” to the introspective, melancholic “Silk” and “Wonderwhy.” In a testament to their flexibility, they managed to hold the crowd’s rapt attention during each song, regardless of tone, tempo, or instrumentation. Whether they were crushing the well-loved guitar riff towards the end of “Giant Peach” (a moment that Amey described as “seismic”) or spotlighting Rowsell’s haunting, delicate vocals on slower numbers like “Turn to Dust,” the band swept the audience along on whatever trip they felt inclined to take.

This remarkable ability to sustain momentum regardless of mood resulted in a show that Thursday’s crowd won’t soon forget – a set that was at once technically impressive, vividly emotional, and just plain fun. Indeed, the beauty of Wolf Alice lies in their tendency to play the simultaneous roles of poets, professionals, and party animals. Amey hit on this multidimensionality while discussing “Lisbon,” a standout track from My Love is Cool. “I just find the end section super-orchestral, super powerful, super loud, super gnarly,” he said, his face lighting up. “I love that song. Sonically, it could’ve been a mess… but it’s very loud and euphoric. If you can get a blend between the two, it’s really my favorite genre… emotionally noisy f****ing music.”     

Indeed, Amey is fully aware of the band’s ability to balance disparate elements of careful craft, honest feeling, and head-banging enthusiasm. The final bars of “Lisbon” are a perfect example of this equilibrium – saturated with joy and wild distortion, they retain just enough orchestraic beauty, displaying a mature musical integrity that separates Wolf Alice from other indie-grunge groups. The ecstatic energy of Thursday’s sold-out crowd was a testament to the fact that this band is one of a kind. Wolf Alice and their emotional noise are going places, and it will be a privilege to see — and hear — what they accomplish next.

Contact Clare Flanagan at ckflan ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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