Wolf Alice - Manchester Ritz
It's nearly a year since Wolf Alice pitched up across the road at Gorilla and played a set that flirted equally with both disaster and triumph. That unsteady half hour could well have made a mockery of their place on the bill: the main support slot at the annual Dot2Dot Festival. In front of a sizeable crowd, they played with a nervy energy that only those striving to connect really dare display. They see-sawed between compelling and slipshod: exciting on one level, but hardly the best calling card in front of a festival crowd of floating punters.
As they struggled to contain themselves and, more tellingly, fought a sound mix that left singer Ellie Rowsell barely audible, some of the curious slipped away. You can almost picture the band, a few years hence, as Jack Lemmon's Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross, nursing warm lunchtime pints and bemoaning their rotten luck. "The leads were weak," they'll splutter as some lesser, more easily digestible and NME-friendly, outfit grabs what should rightfully have been theirs.
Only, the leads weren't weak. So breathe easy. Turns out punters were willing to spend after all, and Wolf Alice, their drive unquestionable, went out and sold, sold, sold. And so here they are tonight, playing what may well be their biggest headline show to date (a week later, they will perform to a sold-out Shepherd's Bush Empire in London). Manchester Ritz is full and fully on board. Wolf Alice might once have been cowed by the welcome they receive tonight but now they stride on stage all smiles and convert a wave of goodwill into a dynamic newly focused. They're twice the band they were a year ago.
It's easy to forget in such a setting that their recorded output amounts to no more than a handful of independently-released EPs in their four or so years together. It's impossible to ignore the fact that they've still not released an album. (Debut My Love is Cool arrives in June.) And it would take some special kind of sensory deprivation to not clock how tonight they play with a corner-turned resolve that finally makes good on a live reputation that often seemed to be based on goodwill rather than achievement.
It's curious how most observers have plumped for reference points that a band in their early twenties could so easily have missed, or simply not cared for in the first place. Rowsell has consistently been bemused (if not flattered) by comparisons with the likes of Belly. What does that tell us? That most music critics these days are white men in their forties? Ouch. Or that, on reflection, the early-mid 90's US alt-scene threw up just one (ahem) girl group that UK audiences could be arsed opening their wallet for? Certainly, as Rowsell puts down her guitar for a tender 'Soapy Water', it suggests that the Wolf Alice tour bus is home to more than the questionable canon of chin-stroking indie rock, thank the lord.
Alongside that developing aesthetic, take heart from not just the size but also the shape of Wolf Alice's audience. It is (slightly) mostly female, young and impressively devout. Remember how, back in the grimiest days of Britpop, more outlets than should have known better consistently trotted out that line about Louise Wener of Sleeper? You know the one – all the boys wanna be with her, all the gurls wanna be her. That latter bit never really rang true, did it?
Yet tonight, as the mosh pit pounces on 'Moaning Lisa Smile' and the mighty 'Giant Peach' (a new high, its chugging riffs a thrilling reduction of the WA sound), you hope that maybe there's a place at the table for Ellie Rowsell alongside the likes of Elena Tonri and Lauren Mayberry; two female artists whose intentions seem still at odds with prevailing alt trends. Certainly, Rowsell's songwriting seems to be properly in sync with her band's Angela Carter-inspired monicker, her lyrics an intriguing and fractured ("Flash your teeth, though the inside hurts") amalgam of internal monologue and festival-ready hooks. She's charm to spare, too. "Manchester," she says, as they return for a brace of properly-won encores, "you've always been so good to us." Which, as we know, isn’t entirely true. But we'll know better from now on.