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Gig Review: Alex G at The Powerstation

Alex G
The Powerstation
Tuesday 12 December

Photographs by Calum Dewsnap

Words by Beth Torrance-Hetherington

Last Tuesday night marked an important date: Alex G at the Powerstation. The announcement of the band’s dates in Tāmaki Makaurau and Pōneke earlier in the year came highly anticipated, marking their first time in Aotearoa since playing Laneway at Albert Park in 2018.

My first discovery of Alex G came in high school with the song ‘Change’, a droney ballad whose softly strummed chords combined with Alex’s falsetto immediately brought to mind Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’. Needless to say, I fell in love.

I huddled through the blustery wind to join the Doc-wearing ranks to watch opener Molly Payton. Since I last saw her play she has embraced a grittier guitar sound that is refreshing and exciting.

Alex G is composed of frontman Alexander Giannascoli, lead guitarist Sam Acchione, bassist John Heywood and drummer Tom Kelly. The band arrived on stage and wordlessly launched into two God Save the Animals tracks: S.D.O.S, an instrumental, and infectiously catchy ‘Runner’. It was a treat to hear the infectious strumming of House of Sugar’s ‘Hope’ next, which engendered an exciting energy in the room.

A few summers ago I lay in my room and made my way chronologically through every Alex G record, listening for every idiosyncrasy. It was a treat to be fully immersed in the sparkling world and its deft lyricism and musical mannerisms, with all of its sprawling fields and open oceans, its dark forests, mushroom homes and every suburban street. That’s what made this gig so exciting.

Throughout the set, Alex moved back and forth between centre-stage, where he played electric guitar, and an electric piano, which he crouched over as if it were an extension of himself. The witnessing of Alex’s evident connection to his instruments as something not only creative but physical was endearing, and made the crowd feel safe in his hands.

I know that earlier on, Alex largely preferred a DIY approach and recorded at home. This is what makes his approach towards the past few records of note — Alex G took the studio. One might fear that the studio context has the potential to undermine the DIY ethos of Alex G, but one couldn’t be more wrong.

This year, Alex G toured the world with God Save the Animals, a new collection of songs recorded in-studio that enjoy all the classic Alex G characteristics such as fresh acoustic guitar, sped-up vocals and droning, looping piano parts, while offering new insights into the creative scope of Alex G. These include the encompassing of Alex’s natural register and an embracement of structure and instant accessibility with tracks like ‘Runner’ (which by no means forfeits ingenuity).

The simultaneous darkness and naïvety of the lyrics and sound of Alex G is what makes the music so compelling. Meanwhile, the often conversational and childlike nature of Alex’s lyrics captures the feeling of a softened memory or a hazy dream:

 

‘You were in my dream last week / I’d like to hear what you think / We passed a house driving fast / The sun was shining on the grass’ — ‘Change’

 

Often, a simple, heart-wrenching truth is realised that either sneaks up on you, droning in and out of the mix, or comes unannounced with a mirthful grin:

 

‘I don’t like how things change’ — ‘Change’

‘Hold on tight to this time and place ’cause everything you know will be erased’ — ‘Things to Do’

‘I don’t care / I just want to be a part of something’ — ‘Crab’

 

Throughout the entirety of the show Alex sang through gritted teeth in a way that was both completely bizarre and compelling. It was exciting to hear ‘No Bitterness’ in all its hyperpoptastic glory, but nothing could compare to the excitement of the room when the opening chords of ‘Sarah’ rang out, nor the muted strums of ‘Mary’. This was undoubtedly a highlight of the show.

Alex’s discography hosts a cast of characters, young and old, each with their own story. The tangible nature of these characters further cultivates the depth and the mystique of the world of Alex G. His unique, unapologetic and often counterintuitive creative decisions, combined with charming, hypnotic and haunting instrumentation, make for a folky, fairytale-like experience. This distinction is sharp on 2019’s House of Sugar — including whimsical tracks boasting titles like ‘Gretel’ and ‘Sugar’ — and on 2017’s Rocket, with often dark and sardonic lyrics:

 

‘No matter what you do, the witch will burn you’ — ‘Witch’

‘Oh look, the poison root / Dug it up from the poison tree / Crushed it up and boiled my tea’ — ‘Poison Root’

 

It was exciting to no end to hear ‘Brick’ live, a dark noise rock track with hardcore punk influences, rather contrary to the folkier numbers.

Distinctive vocal effects and inflections with experimentation of sound, texture and genre with the incorporation of instrumentation such as electric guitar, synth, keyboard or fiddle all quickly solidify themselves as part of the fabric of Alex G and make perfect sense live. The cohesion between acoustic lo-fi numbers and the encompassing of rock- and Neil Young-inflected guitar parts, or the darkness and brutality of ‘Brick’, for instance, speak to the versatility of Alex as a musician and the respective musicality of the band.

I was beyond stoked to hear the band play ‘Gretel’, an all-time favourite of mine. In the stripped-back beginning of the chorus, I could hear the rest of the room singing along. The acoustic guitar and the vulnerability of Alex’s voice, followed by the lushness of the rest of the song, conjured a euphoric nostalgia and an energy in the room that should not be understated.

The genius of Alex G lies in the contrast between his more accessible creations and his dark, psychedelic stuff that makes you feel like you’re trapped in a haunted house that’s having a rave.

This is the artistry of Alex G: the refusal to adhere to any expectation that isn’t wholly authentic and by their own right. Alex G is the complete master of his craft. Each new body of work informs each previous one and all that is to come, offering a new window through which to peer into the world, which beckons you into its witch’s cottage with a wry smile. Live, the ethos of Alex G is epitomised, and the result is electric.