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6th December 2022

Live review: Pale Waves at Albert Hall, Manchester

The Manchester band bring a night of pop-punk tunes to their hometown following the release of their third album Unwanted
Live review: Pale Waves at Albert Hall, Manchester
Photo: Pale Waves @ Lucy Craig

Manchester’s Pale Waves already had a plethora of fizzy indie-pop anthems behind them, but now, with their new album Unwanted, they bring an original, glitzy flair to Manchester’s Albert Hall. However, despite performing a set bursting at the seams with non-stop hits, Pale Waves are let down by an over-reliance on backing tracks, inconsistent audience interaction and, to no fault of the band, a depressing 0-0 result in Friday night’s England vs USA World Cup match. Yes, our review is admittedly laden with Southgate-induced angst. Apologies.

Running late from frustratedly sipping pints in the Old Nags Head and quickly snacking on a Sainsbury’s meal deal in the rain, we enter the venue to the infectious pop hooks of ‘You Don’t Own Me’. Debuted live in Manchester, the track bursts with confident affirmation and feminine empowerment (all wrapped up neatly with growly bass and relentless rhythm guitar). The group’s natural skill for ear-worm melodies already has the song running around in circles inside our heads, and a benchmark of intoxicating energy is firmly set.

Photo: Pale Waves @ Lucy Craig

Swaggering across the stage in towering platform boots and 80’s-inspired goth eyeliner, Heather Baron-Gracie acts as the angsty middle-ground between Avril Lavigne and Robert Smith. Baron-Gracie’s trademark marriage of whining and pining is central to Pale Waves’ show, guiding her audience through songs of forbidden love, burning heart ache and teenage cynicism. Classic singles such as ‘Eighteen’ or ‘Television Romance’ – triumphantly jangly sing-alongs – are greeted with insatiable screaming (like some sort of lesbian Beatle-mania). The unashamedly trashy guitars on both tracks soar across the Albert Hall’s ecclesiastical interior in a cathartic wall of noise. This is what Pale Waves do best… make a massive racket.

Whilst the classics are always welcome, the group’s new material stands out. Sporting a Mick Ronson-esque guitar sound and a chord progression lifted straight out of a Blink-182 record, the new single ‘Jealousy’ has become an overwhelming fan-favourite – and this is no speculation; we could literally hear groups repetitively shouting for ‘Jealousy’ in-between songs. It is glam-rock meets pop-punk: ridiculously unsubtle, infectiously fast-paced, and deliciously camp. Pale Waves manage to not just integrate their new material into their established catalogue, but impressively turn them into highlights in and of themselves. Props are due.

It’s also worth mentioning the atmosphere of the show – an atmosphere of passion, recognition and inclusion. Baron-Gracie makes no attempt to hide the LGBTQ+ themes of her songwriting, presenting her songs’ intimate musings on sexuality to her audience with unashamed glee. Featuring a lesbian flag wrapped around Baron-Gracie’s figure, a transgender flag covering the bass drum of non-binary drummer tour-de-force Ciara Doran and hundreds of coloured paper hearts clasped tightly in the hands punters, a visceral sense of empowerment is created. In and amongst the sea of hearts and the garish sheen of rainbow lighting, anyone identifying as part of the LGTBQ+ community is bound to feel accounted for and liberated. “Let gay pride commence”, Baron-Gracie announces before singing ‘She Is My Religion’: a perfect fit for a converted church.

Photo: Pale Waves @ Lucy Craig

Sadly, what should have been a fantastic performance was let down by various aspects. Football moodiness aside, Pale Waves’ Albert Hall show simply lacked the electric zeal of their show at 02 Victoria Warehouse earlier this year. At numerous points during the band’s set, we were distracted by an abundance of backing tracks, some better hidden than others. Baron-Gracie’s vocal track would frequently ring out when her lips were firmly shut, her head turned away from the microphone. Guitarist Hugo Silvani’s hand often remained clasped on one chord position on the fretboard, when what we were hearing was clearly a progression of multiple chords.

Backing tracks aren’t inherently something to be criticised – Beabadoobee’s recent Manchester show being a perfect example of subtle use of pre-recorded textures – but when a singer’s backing vocal track is painfully obvious at multiple points of the show, it becomes an issue. Loaded subject matters like loss, identity, and betrayal become a lot harder to invest in when a band’s performance feels like one belonging to an episode of Top of the Pops.

There were continuous references to Manchester throughout the show as the band themselves are from the city, but as much as we all loved it there were only so many times that we could cheer to the mention of “Manchester!” The rapport was much better when the band was truly engaging with the audience by taking people’s BeReals and using their phones for photos. This was all in an attempt to placate the crowd when they ran into technical difficulties with one of their backing tracks. The upbeat pop-punk music that so easily captivated people was undoubtedly their saving grace. Lucky for them, since it was a concert after all!

Photo: Pale Waves @ Lucy Craig

Overall, the energy of Pale Waves’ concert was electric and you couldn’t help but be entranced by their glam-rock songs with relatable lyrics and their indomitable pop-punk spirit. For sure, if we hadn’t watched England’s most frustrating World Cup game right before the gig, we would have been there (emotionally) with the rest of the crowd enjoying a brilliant Friday night concert – despite more Manchester references than I can count on both hands and a rather large reliance on backing tracks.


Unwanted is out now, and you can stream it below:

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