(Sandy) Alex G – Deaf Institute, Manchester – 19/10/17

(Sandy) Alex G’s success seems to have been an exercise in stealth. His rise, as is so typical of the early-to-mid-2010s music industry, took place predominantly on Bandcamp, where he did enough to stand out in the viper’s nest of unsigned, anonymous bedroom dreamers to catch the attention of indie titans Domino. Two full length albums have followed on the label – more recently the superlative Rocket in May this year. It’s a case study of how the new media system can work, and genuine talent can prosper without the need for major backing or relentless soul-crushing industry networking.

The Philadelphia artist has crammed enough word-of-mouth buzz inside the two years since his Domino debut that he’s sold out Deaf Institute tonight – a sure sign that you’ve been welcomed into the heart of Manchester’s music-loving community. Of course, it can’t have hurt to have had the rub from being involved in Frank Ocean’s Blonde album, but it’s not like much of the coverage of that release threw him much praise anyway.

Alex’s own music is bracingly idiosyncratic, a homespun DIY concoction that calls to mind Sparklehorse, Elliott Smith and Perfume Genius with his lo-fi and open-hearted writing/performing style. Based on tonight’s attendance and crowd reactions, Alex has struck an emotional chord, not just with ‘Rocket’, but with prior releases too. Nothing he plays tonight goes unrecognised or unloved.

And he certainly plays a lot, cramming over twenty songs in just over an hour. Rocket dominates the set, but doesn’t monopolise it. Tracks like ‘Bobby’, ‘Judge’ and ‘Poison Root’ set the pace for the first half of the set, with Alex’s vocals more defiant in person than one might instinctively expect. He clambers from guitar to keyboards for ‘Sportstar’, his playing style causing his fingers to protrude at such unnatural angles that I genuinely worry about the prospect of dislocation at one point.

He’s backed by a rock solid band – including a propulsive drummer that I thought might fall through the stage, such was the thunder coming from his arms and legs. The band are comfortable and talented enough to embark on improvisational jams at several stages, fluttering around the spaces between genres without fear. Following one such foray, they end up, whether by accident or design I’m not so sure, perilously close to sounding like muzak, but they even make that work.

After a bizarre and brief little interlude, featuring some real-life muzak, they return ablaze with another relay of quickfire songs, each one sung in full throat by one of the most knowledgeable audiences I’ve been part of for some time. When he plays older songs like ‘Kute’ and ‘Harvey’, there’s no drop-off in familiarity. Alex has built this following over a number of years – and the bond has been fortified by these people’s emotional devotion to his music.

Alex literally begins taking requests as the night nears its end, with one lucky individual successfully convincing him to play ‘Mis’ from 2015’s Rules. For a brief moment, I think I’m losing my mind when another song’s chord structure sounds like a dead ringer for blink-182’s ‘What’s My Age Again?’ – and when Alex starts actually singing the chorus to that song, I’m no less confused.

Tonight’s gig plays out at a breakneck speed, without a second of wastage. That such a besotted group of devotees were here waiting for him is perhaps the most heartwarming part of the story. (Sandy) Alex G is, as things stand, one of the best-kept secrets in alternative music – but on tonight’s evidence the secret cannot be kept forever.

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