We live in Arizona and honestly, much of the population starts to feel a chill at 65 degrees, and it was 20 degrees lower than that at the ALT AZ Ugly Sweater Party Sunday night at Mesa Amphitheatre. I've seen Bob Dylan in the rain in early spring in the rain in Pennsylvania and Neil Young conjure a thunderstorm in the cool Autumn depths of upstate New York, and I have never, ever experienced a colder concert experience in my life than last night. I figured it was going to be chilly, and I wore five layers, but even still I was shivering in a corner by the end of the night.
Nevertheless, the music was fantastic despite the conditions. Bastille, CHVRCHES, and Wolf Alice were on the bill, and the three bands somehow persevered through the mind-numbing cold.
Wolf Alice opened everything up right on schedule and because the cold hadn't yet become ever unbearable, I'll probably take away the best memories of the evening from the set. Riding high on their recent Grammy nomination, Wolf Alice gave a slaying ten-song performance in just over 40 minutes, playing nearly their entire album My Love Is Cool. They opened with "Your Loves Whore" and came on like heavy dream pop, with Ellie Roswell delivering near babydoll vocals. It was a great intro a bit of a shock I suppose for anyone that has only heard their current radio hit. "You're a Germ" followed and it was a bit more akin to the aggressive noise rock that radio fans would enjoy. If I learned one thing about seeing Wolf Alice, it's that I need to invest more time in listening to Wolf Alice, if nothing else than for the guitar work alone. Whether it was more dream pop like "Bros" or the guitar riff heavy power pop of "Lisbon," the monstrous guitar power of "90 Mile Beach" or the clincher that won me over completely, "Giant Peach," Wolf Alice gave their all and showed the depth of their talents. I continued to reel over their sound with the slow burner "Silk," the guitar again arresting my mind on "Fluffy," the stunning "Storms," and of course, the hit "Moaning Lisa Smile," which was better live than on record. I've heard them on the radio and on various streaming sites and liked them well enough, but I bought the album as soon as I got home after seeing them live.
It was time to wait for CHVRCHES. It was also at this point that the cold began to creep in fiercely. I also realized the entire lineup was a UK Invasion evening, and I was glad for them that they would probably be unfazed by it. The crowd was already looking uncomfortable, resorting to whiskey and body heat for warmth, but everyone was eagerly anticipating the next act and luckily didn't have to wait long.
I have to say that I've always had a problem with synth-based bands in outdoor festival performances, and CHVRCHES is no exception. It's not their fault; it just seems that electronica bands suffer from open air acoustics. In this particular case the sound wasn't the best mix either, whether in the pit where it was horribly muddied or in the frozen upper tundra where the synths were competing with Lauren Mayberry's vocals for attention.
While the band gave preferential treatment to their new album Every Open Eye as far as song selection, they included a healthy dose of 2013's The Bones of What You Believe. Mayberry, was great with the crowd, and her asides between songs were almost as entertaining as the lush, synth-laden pop they were presenting. She admitted to not understanding the party theme and how the band wouldn't have probably dressed in all black if they had, but added "We're more Krampus than Christmas." She also addressed the weather and I realized whether from the UK or not, this was cold, remarking that the last time they played Arizona "It was terribly fucking hot. ... We're from a cold country and we had to psych ourselves up to go outside!"
She even asked someone in a t-shirt if they were mental. She even touched on our politics, and her dismay with one candidate, concluding that "He gets enough coverage without speaking his name." They concluded the set with a powerful trio of singles: "Leave A Trace," "Clearest Blue," and "The Mother We Share." I would love to see CHVRCHES in a Marquee Theatre-size club or anything other than an amphitheater, because their music is great, but I need to be able to lose myself in the sound.
Judging by how many people left after CHVRCHES, it was clear that for many people that band was the main attraction. I heard a group of friends that apologized for leaving, but it was too cold and they had seen Bastille before. I had seen Bastille before as well, and I thought for a moment about leaving and just writing about how I imagined it was, because at that point I could barely take notes and could not stop shivering no matter what I did. I will hand it to the festival crew, they made sure that there weren't long waits between bands and I'm pretty sure they must have told Bastille to play the whole set straight through and skip an encore. The crowd didn't thin out too badly, but as Bastille's set went on and some hits were played, more and more made way for the egress.
First of all, Bastille puts on a great show. I caught them last Spring at the Pot of Gold Music Festival when everything was beautiful and nothing hurt and it was one of the most impressive sets of the weekend. That memory kept me from abandoning ship. The biggest difference between the set they played last night and the one in March was that they were seriously testing out new material with the crowd for their highly anticipated second album.
The group kicked off the entire thing with the hit "Flaws," which the crowd went wild for, and I was jealous of the people in the middle of the pit where it was warm and possibly nice. "Things We Lost In The Fire" was next followed by one of the announced new songs, "Blame." They had played this one last spring and since then it seems to have gotten even darker, reminding me of mid-period Depeche Mode, but with killer guitars.
"Laura Palmer" was great as ever and still stands out of one of the best tracks from Bad Blood. Lead singer Dan Smith then announced, "This next song is really depressing. If you want to go get a warm drink, now's the time," before launching into the sweet, sad, piano driven "Oblivion."
A bizarre version of "Of The Night" was up next, and it's as fun in the middle of the set as it was as the set closer back in March.
"Snakes" was the next song of the new album and it was probably the best in the lot of new songs, I wanted to take more notes on it, but I had lost all feeling in my fingers and my gel pen wasn't functioning properly.
The stunning "Icarus" was next followed by "These Streets" which began with pristine near-Beach-Boys-perfect harmonies.
"The Draw" is another dark new song from the upcoming album and it's a bit of slow burner, but it was edging on 9:30 and people were leaving now at a more frequent interval out of discomfort alone. Smith talked about the series of mixtapes they had made and the covers they had done which had to be taken down under threat of lawsuit under the series title Other People's Heartache, though advised they may still be available somewhere in the depths of the internet.
Bastille finished with the fantastic hit "Pompeii" after thanking everyone for braving the cold with them. It started with a slow, cool piano intro and exploded from there. It was a wonderful arrangement livening up a very familiar song and bringing it new life.
As soon as the last chord hit, the entire audience fled the amphitheater. I had actually been waiting near the exit for that chord and with the biggest single being played, I was certain it was the end of the show. By the time I reached the parking lot, 93.3 was providing the soundtrack and I was glad that I was not wrong.
Last Nght: Bastille, CHVRCHES, Wolf Alice at Mesa Amphitheatre
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The Crowd: 20-somethings everywhere. That was 90 percent of the audience with little exception. They were all amazingly well behaved and clearly freezing to death. The few that didn't seem to mind the weather were clearly mutants.
Random Notebook Dump: Wolf Alice live sounds like would have happened in an alternate universe where Kim Deal took leadership of The Pixies.
Random Notebook Dump 2: I need to see CHVRCHES in a club or concert hall or small arena or anywhere but here.
Random Notebook Dump 3: Oh, Bastille, if I didn't agree to do this and I didn't love your stage show so damn much, I would be at home making love to a space heater.