The Best Concerts of the Year: Alvvays at Variety Playhouse
The Canadian group's precise indie pop unsurprisingly translates to the Atlanta stagePhoto by Norman Wong Music Features Alvvays
When listing the best frontpeople in music, names like Joe Talbot, Michelle Zauner, Mick Jagger, James Murphy and Danielle Haim might jump to mind. But after one particular show at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta this year, I’m adding Molly Rankin to the mix.
Rankin, who heads Canadian indie-rock band Alvvays, is the best lead singer I witnessed in 2022, and therefore put on the best show I saw in 2022. Fresh off the October release of their third LP Blue Rev, the band—currently consisting of singer/songwriter Rankin, keyboardist Kerri MacLellan, guitarist Alec O’Hanley, bassist Abbey Blackwell and drummer Sheridan Riley—was fired up at their November show. I’ve followed the group, always rumored to be outstanding live, obsessively since the release of their 2017 album Antisocialites, but the stars didn’t align for me to see them until this year. And not only did they live up to that reputation as stellar performers and make good on the promise of an immaculate show, but they also went beyond just playing their songs well. Under Rankin’s lead, they gave a performance that usurped the experience of listening to one of their records at home. And isn’t that the whole point of live music?
Alvvays, who have made three adored and near-perfect studio albums, are one of the most respected bands in indie music. Their prowess put to tape is undeniable. But their equal talent for live performance, delightfully shaggy but never suffering from any downtime, was confirmed right away that night at Variety. Their show is quick and sharp at times and collapses into a fizzy array of light and sound at others. It’s like watching a math problem being solved in reverse. In much the same way Tame Impala creates an atmosphere within each show—even on the 12th week of tour—Alvvays crafted an extraordinary audience experience that night in Atlanta, and seemingly every night after. And while Tame Impala plays arenas, Alvvays somehow brought just as much noise to a 2,000-capacity rock venue.
They opened this particular show with “Pharmacist,” an electrifying psych-rock song that served as Blue Rev’s lead single. Upon first listen, it sounds much like a typical Alvvays song, all sugary shoegaze and crunchy guitars, but then there’s an extra jolt. That experience was amplified tenfold in the live setting. Rankin was assured and commanding in her delivery of the lyrics and stinging guitar, both during “Pharmacist” and “Easy On Your Own?,” which the band cleverly saved for the final quarter of the setlist. If “Pharmacist” is an Alvvays song dipped in battery acid, “Easy On Your Own?” is just as charged but with an added emotional wrinkle.
Concerts, while for many are a source of recreation, fun and release, can sometimes slip into a drag: There’s too much banter, songs that go on forever, a second encore when a nightcap is in order. But this is not the case with Alvvays. The band slides from one song into the next often unceremoniously, rolling out a heavenly cinnamon roll of sound. You’ve barely had enough time to register which shimmery indie-rock treasure they’re playing before it rockets into the next. And when they finally walked off the stage in a wash of reverb, I realized a thousand encores wouldn’t be enough.
One reason for this deficit of lulls in the setlist is because their catalog itself doesn’t contain any lulls. Fans of the band might even tell you their songs sound so similar it’s difficult to differentiate one track from another. But that’s because with every single note Rankin and co. release, they do some serious quality control. Even their sleepiest selections—Antisocialites’s “Saved By A Waif,” or “Ones Who Love You,” from their self-titled album—are repeat offenders in the jam department, and they soar even higher in a live setting. Other songs that might feel like an afterthought in the face of bangers like “Easy On Your Own?,” “Not My Baby” and hit “Alvvays that ascended to jam-band concert heights during the show. “You don’t have to leave / You could just stay here with me,” Rankin sang, as if speaking directly to the crowd who would soon flood the streets for home. The weird and New Wave-y “Very Online Guy,” too, sounded more complete live, even with its experimental AutoTune and criss-crossing synthwork.
Another highlight in the set was the band’s live take on “Belinda Says,” a Blue Rev single that has emerged as a critics’ favorite. Like so many of their great songs, the story is strong enough to match the ace melody. A tale of starting from scratch in the wake of an unplanned pregnancy, “Belinda Says” is a searing dream-pop ballad about new beginnings, and the live performance was just as refreshing as its track-11 appearance on Blue Rev. Similarly, the chiming “Not My Baby” from Antisocialites had the room buzzing, even without the motorcycle sound effects on the recorded version.
You could say the rest of the set was “filled in” with deep cuts from Alvvays’ first two albums, but as previously argued, there’s no such thing as filler in the world of this band. Alvvays music follows a formula, and that formula seamlessly transfers to the stage. The show featured punchy favorites from Antisocialites and more subdued pulls from the self-titled album, and it made a case for Blue Rev as the best of the three. It’s an album where city meets country, childhood meets adult obligation, and wanderlust meets home. The concert felt much the same. I’ve always known Alvvays is one of my favorite bands, but it was an added treat to discover they sound even better live. It’s clear Rankin delights in her role as bandleader, and her energy radiates from the front row all the way back to the merch table. While the next album and tour are never guaranteed in the world of pop music, I can promise if given the chance, I’ll be boogieing with Alvvays every time they come my way—party police be damned.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop-culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.