Live Review: Alvvays @ The Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver – March 17th 2023

Alvvays is a band out to prove that they are so much larger than the limited shores of their Prince Edward Island origins, having spent the last decade working hard hone to hone their sound and establish themselves on the indie scene. However, after radio silence over the past five years, doubt had started to manifest as to whether the East coast gems planned to carry on beyond the tumultuous years of late. With collective delight, we received their new album Blue Rev last year with the knowledge that not only is Alvvays here to stay, but they have developed to even greater heights. They are currently undertaking a major North American tour, playing two soldout shows to eager Vancouver fans at the Commodore Ballroom last week.

Opening for Alvvays on this leg of the tour were Vancouver newcomers Big Rig, a side project of Courtneys singer-drummer Jen Twynn Payne. The new formation sees Payne leaning into her Albertan roots, the musical offerings orbiting country but with an emotive rock edge. Bringing bedroom rock to the rodeo, Big Rig was born out of Payne’s desire to swap out her drumsticks for a guitar and impromptu jam sessions with her banjo-playing cousin-in-law Geoffo Reith.

From the get-go, the arpeggiated banjo picking invited the crowd into a laidback honky tonk with indie flair. The tunes the openers selected showcased a healthy dose of heartbreak with a quirky sense of humour in equal measure, Payne revealing a penchant for trash TV as she introduced one song as based on an episode of The Bachelorette. She noted that this gig was taking place on the three-year anniversary of the covid lockdown. “Kind of depressing, hey?” she said, not meaning to bring down the mood. “But I wrote all these songs during that time, so some good came out of it.” Big Rig brought their set to a close with epically titled country bop “Crying in a Corn Maze”, getting a groove going in the crowd.

Alvvays performing at The Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, BC, Canada © Julia Verea

To rousing primal chanting, cooling beams of light, and ethereal projections on gauzy veils around the stage, Alvvays took the stage. They launched straight in with two singles from the new album, Blue Rev, really bursting into life with “After the Earthquake”. The music evoked the feel of running through a forest with wild abandon, on the delicious edge between control and chaos, a body trying to keep up with its flurrying feet. The bridge took a soothing moment of reprieve for the song to catch its breath, and then it was straight back into the soaring keys and hammering beat. Frontwoman Rankin came out of the song beaming a wide smile. “We’re going to play a ton of songs for you,” she announced, launching into a breathless set of compact punch-packing pop-rock ditties. 

Alvvays performing in Vancouver, BC, Canada © Julia Verea

Alvvays showcased nearly every track off the new album–and after the calamity that went into writing it, I’m not surprised they wanted to bask in every inch of it. Unintentionally coming out five years after their sophomore release, Antisocialites, the delay came down to a combination of extensive touring, pandemic-related border closures, the misfortunate theft of a recorder full of demos, and an untimely flood that ruined most of the band’s gear. The end product was worth waiting for, a mix of sunny day surf rock and scintillating sunset introspection. 

Alvvays has always found small ways to make themselves stand out from the herd, twisting familiar territory of dream pop and lo-fi rock tropes with unique melodies and unpredictable song structures. This quality shone in the new song “Very Online Guy”, whose seemingly dissonant melody hooked its way into our pleasure centers over heavy synth 80s fantasy. The vintage inspiration of much of their music comes through strongly in live performance, from the piercing clarity of Rankin’s A-ha-like high notes to the glorious and luxuriant Bowie-esque guitar and art pop movements of “Hey”. Another hero from the latest release, “Belinda Says”, deftly pivoted around audibly captivating organ strains, a warpy key change, and a stripped-back singable chorus. This sort of timeless songwriting is what gives Alvvays all the makings of a major artist on the scene. 

As a child of a very musical upbringing (Molly is the daughter of fiddler John Morris Rankin of Canadian musical legends the Rankin Family) the woman clearly knows her way around a song. You can see her writing prowess blossom out of fertile soil with each new album, pulling the crowd through the pure sunshine of a track like “Adult Diversion” one moment and onto romantically melancholic tones of “Not My Baby” the next, all stitched seamlessly together by Rankin’s unfaltering and unfaultable vocals. The tight band pulled off marvelous feats as they continued the nonstop joyride of compositions, sending stringy surf guitar strains out like refracted beams of light, exercising beautiful restraint with both muffled and snappy drumming, and pulling off a very cool fade to one of their tunes as every instrument magically brought the volume down completely on their electric instruments leaving me wondering, “How on earth did they do that?” 

Alvvays performing in Vancouver, BC, Canada © Julia Verea

“I’m aware it’s St. Patrick’s Day, but we don’t have to bring that energy in,” Molly acknowledged jokingly mid-set, “It’s like fratboy Christmas.” The energy in the room was the perfect buoyancy without being unruly as Paddy’s Day carnage likely unfurled outside on Granville Street. The band then bucked the trend and sandwiched in their iconic debut megahit “Marry Me, Archie” as a mid-set pick-me-up, moving the crowd to wave their hands in the air and belt it out. Then it was straight into another shredding banger off the new album to keep everyone vibrating on the floor. The band brought the tempo down a string of Blue Rev ballads starting with the epic “Tile by Tile” and its chilling synth lines and wailing guitar woven through, plus a beautiful touch of reverb on the microphone, followed up by the popular “Dreams Tonight” in its romantic splendor.

The set was a beautifully crafted journey through the band’s revelatory range, delivering fully on their promise to play a whole heap of songs in a hefty setlist, plus a three-song encore. Alvvays seems to be a band that moves blindly to the beat of their heart, unleashing a sixth sense for pleasing sounds and trend-worthy innovation. Drawing from diverse musical influences, the band continues to feel fresh, and never more so than on the stage in their full glory. By way of goodbye to their sunny two-night stint in Vancouver, the band brought on a sunset of a long summer day in song form with “Lottery Noises”, winding down a riveting concert experience to create a longing for their return in the hearts of their delighted fans. 

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Alvvays setlist:

After the Earthquake
In Undertow
Many Mirrors
Very Online Guy
Adult Diversion
Not My Baby
Tom Verlaine
Belinda Says
Bored in Bristol
Fourth Figure
Archie, Marry Me
Pomeranian Spinster
Tile by Tile
Dreams Tonite
Easy On Your Own?
Saved by a Waif

Atop a Cake
Lottery Noises

Photo gallery © Julia Verea

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