A couple of hours before Wolf Alice are due to take the stage for the opening night (March 26) of their residency at the O2 Forum in London’s Kentish Town, they post a photo of bassist Theo Ellis’ elbow. It’s bright pink and hugely swollen, like a solid, fleshy balloon. Before it, there’s a note from Theo explaining why he won’t be playing – “I have developed a really bad infection surrounding my elbow leaving me in considerable pain with limited mobility and on a lot of very sickly medicines”.
It’s far from the ideal start to the run of dates. These are probably the last UK headline shows the band will play around their debut album, ‘My Love Is Cool’, having already triumphed at Brixton Academy last year and coming at the end of their third UK tour within a year. They should be a celebration of all that’s happened to the band in that time – an album that came within a few hundred copies of the top of the charts, sold out shows full of rabid fans fully enthralled by everything Wolf Alice have become. “Tonight’s show will still be spectacular,” promises Theo in his note, but, beforehand, it’s easy to question that statement.
It might be odd to look at the stage and see Gengahr’s John Victor wielding a bass on stage right, but it turns out that Theo’s right. Tonight is still spectacular. With one member down, it would be easy for Wolf Alice to look less like a gang than they usually do, but, if anything, that gang mentality seems stronger tonight. Frontwoman Ellie Rowsell addresses the issue of their missing bassist as soon as opener ‘Your Love’s Whore’ is over, asking the crowd to put their elbows in the air in solidarity. It’s a sweet dedication to Theo, but also a unifying moment that initiates all those present into the band’s little mob too.
Right at the end of the set, Ellie jumps off stage and heads towards the barrier, points out three fans to security and gets them to lift them over the barrier to join her and the rest of the group on their platform. There, they’re given the task of joining the singer in the sidestepping dance that has become tradition for her and Theo to do during the intro of ‘Giant Peach’. They give it their best shot, giddily moving from side to side as the crowd in front of them does the same. As the main riff hits, they bounce around the stage, gathering into an excited huddle as the song finishes and two blasts of confetti are launched into the air from either side.
In between, Wolf Alice put on a resilient performance. Theo is clearly missed, but John fits in with impressive ease – if this was your first exposure to Wolf Alice you wouldn’t question whether he was usually a part of the band. Drummer Joel Amey says it best when he asks the audience incredulously “How good is John doing? He learnt all the songs in a day!”
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Injury hiccup aside, tonight is exactly how it should be – a celebration of the evolution of one of Britain’s most special bands. Watching Wolf Alice on the first of four sold out nights is to watch a band who’ve grown into the supreme confidence they now wield, to the point where they’re on the brink of becoming something iconic. The elastic pop melodies of ‘Freazy’ and the noise-rock ending of ‘Swallowtail’ show off Joff Oddie’s wiry guitar hero credentials, while the ode to friendship that is ‘Bros’ takes on new levels of empowerment and encouragement when Ellie sings “We could do better, I’m quite sure”.
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On their last UK tour, the band were joined by backing singers because, as Joel told NME at the time, “there’s only so much pretending I can do of being a young lady.” There’s no such embellishments tonight, though, and that only serves to reinforce the tough, irrepressible attitude of the night, even in the quieter tracks. Grouped together like a cluster of fragility, ’90 Mile Beach’, ‘Silk’ and ‘The Wonderwhy’ are delicate in sound, but there’s a defiance that runs through them that grows into fireball-like strength for the louder, fiercer likes of ‘She’ and ‘Storms’.
Tonight is full of a sublime power that shows a band really hitting their stride. As wildly euphoric and on form as it is, though, there’s still the feeling Wolf Alice are a group who are still to hit their peak. Expect their next three nights in London and their steps after that to be yet more brilliant parts of that journey.