Wolf Alice @ Emmarentia Dam, Johannesburg
The day has finally arrived. Today I’ll see Wolf Alice live not on Youtube but in real life. I leave White River at 9 am. The drive to Johannesburg is long and boring. Can’t I be there already!
Four hours later I find parking at the eastern entrance to the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens. Music drifts towards me on the breeze from the Can Do In The City stage a few hundred meters away. I enjoy the building excitement of seeing a favourite band live for the first time. “Why has it been so long since I’ve done this the last time?” I ask myself.
Maybe it’s location (I do live in the Lowveld these days, 300km away from the nearest city), maybe life choices, maybe carelessness, maybe there aren’t any new good bands anymore, maybe all the above? Either way, this experience is long overdue.
I make my way to the festival ground. There are less people than what I expected, but maybe it’s because it’s still early. There are many young people. Many more young people than what I usually see these days. Ah, the downside of living on the platteland.
Entry is delayed due to red tape. I’m prohibited from taking my 70-200mm lens inside. As expected. The security guard and I make a plan. In Africa you can always make a plan (Disclaimer: I did e-mail the organisers beforehand to obtain a photographer pass, but I had no reply). I proceed directly to the bar. I don’t recognize anybody. I suddenly feel a bit old. Hang on, ten years ago I was one of them but it’s a different era, the scene has moved on. It’s true then, you don’t feel your age, you only look it.
I have little interest for the opening artists and sip my R40 double brandy and cokes under the trees, out of the scorching sun. The mood is festive. The shorts are short. Second hand weed fumes waft past my nostrils on the breeze. Yes, the party is in full swing.
Wolf Alice is due on the stage just after three. I make my way to the front of the stage in the shade. There seems to be a few technical issues during the sound check. Understandable. It must be perfect. They’re one of the best up and coming bands in the world. Just the previous week they won the prestigious Mercury prize in England for the best album released this year by a British act.
The Wolf Alice experience
And then they’re on stage. Ellie Rowsell (lead singer and guitarist) seems much smaller in real life. The band opens with the locked-in-groove of YOU’RE LOVE’S A WHORE. They segue effortlessly into the vicious YUK FOO. Before the crowd can catch their breath the bratty YOU’RE A GERM is a thing of the past.
Crowd favourite and modern-day classic DON’T DELETE THE KISSES pulls all the right strings. BEAUTIFULLY CONVENTIONAL works better live than on TV. FORMIDABLE COOL’s insistent riff has me punching the air in pure rock exuberance. A bit later it’s BROS, the song that got me into Wolf Alice. It’s close to pop perfection, but there’s a touch of jadedness in the performance.
SPACE IN TIME falls from punk throwaway to hopelessness when the band fades out to let Ellie sing and strum on her Telecaster. “I hope my body gets better/ Do I mean my body or my mind?/ I hate the word ‘forever’/ I hate the word ‘change’/ I just need time/ Give me time/ Space and time.” For a moment it does feel as if time stands still.
VISIONS OF A LIFE is a 7 minute plus journey that dances slow and fast, revealing loud and soft dynamics. It’s an epic song, growing on me and larger than life live. GIANT PEACH has been their set-closer for as long as I’ve followed them, and this rendition does not let anyone down. Too soon the 15-song set is over.
What went wrong?
Three critiques of the show would be that the 45-minute set was too short. Surely the organisers could have given a band of this stature a one-hour set. I know Wolf Alice only had 45 minutes and their song selection was spot on, but I would have loved to hear SADBOY. And finally, the vocals were a tad soft in the mix, which were at times frustrating, as Ellie is currently one of the best pop/rock vocalists out there.
Otherwise, a great day, great memories. A big shout out to the organisers for bringing out such a promising up and coming band to South Africa. May it happen again soon.