Wolf Alice at Reading Festival 2021: buoyant return from future headliners

August 29: the London four-piece's wondrous Main Stage East slot is fast-paced, punky and packs real emotional heft

Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell and Theo Ellis are staggering across the stage, feeling every note.  They lock their guitars into a battle as the searing chorus of ‘Giant Peach’ lifts off – a breathless ode to leaving your hometown – and set the scene for Rowsell to let out a raw, desperate yelp. ​​”My dark and pretty town!”, she screams with a delivery so guttural that it could (probably) extend from the PA all the way to the Holloway stomping ground that she is singing about.

A studious leader with a gorgeously rich voice that rinses every drop of emotion from her band’s thrilling indie-rock songs, Rowsell moves from these tangible, trembling moments – ‘Play The Greatest Hits’ is another storming highlight – to plaintive and pure on the spine-tingling, Bowie-esque ‘The Last Man On Earth’, for which she uses a vintage mic. Judging by how powerfully the captivated crowd sings the latter, it seems astounding that the London four-piece aren’t higher up on this year’s bill than the Sunday teatime slot.

Not that the band themselves actually mind. In fact, they seem even more bloody excited to be here than the faithful that have packed out the Main Stage East for them. “We’re currently playing at Reading Festival on the Main Stage?”, exclaims a genuinely mystified Ellis at one point. “What the bloody hell has happened here?”

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wolf alice reading 2021
Credit: Emma Viola Lilija

Since their 2015 breakthrough, ‘My Love Is Cool’, Wolf Alice have won themselves countless accolades (including three consecutive Mercury Prize nods), an ever-growing fanbase, and their latest album, ‘Blue Weekend’, is their best yet. While Ellis might clearly be surprised by the band’s success, their ability to deliver the scratchy pop of ‘Beautifully Unconventional’ and the meatier ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’ with the same wicked ferocity means that it’s impossible not to love and admire them in equal measure.

A snarling ‘Formidable Cool’ encourages a now wild-eyed Rowsell to jump frantically in circles – and the young audience before her heroically tries to do the same. But amongst the monster riffs, there’s space for moments of lightheartedness, too. Ellis insists on offering devil-horns aplenty – a knowing, continuous gimmick that leaves the whole band laughing.

Closer ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ provides the life-affirming experience that the weekend has been building up to; this generation-defining love song makes for a big, thumping ending that is certainly headline status ready. As a wistful bass line gently fades out, Rowsell sits on the lip of the stage and chuckles, grateful for the communal spirit that her gang has managed to engender.

Check back at NME all weekend for more reviews, news, interviews, photos and more from Reading & Leeds 2021. 

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