Alexandra Palace boasts the largest sole standing capacity of any music venue in London. It’s also got a great view of the capital from out front. At about this point, I run out of positive things to say about it. Built in the 1800’s, it might look incredibly grand, but I don’t imagine the design team gave much thought to the effect that several thousand watts of backline and PA would have on the place. The Great Hall where the bands play is cavernous and sound waves ricochet around it like over-excited ball bearings in a pinball machine. Drapes hang from the ceiling but do little to quell the abundance of reverb. You’d get better acoustics in a lift shaft. With more cubic feet than an aircraft hangar and a ceiling made of glass, you find in February that it’s also really cold. It takes a special kind of band to break through the encumbrances of attending a gig here. Take a bow, Cage The Elephant, who I had the pleasure of catching on Saturday night.
There were two supports to help break the practically literal ice. The first of them, Post Animal, I sadly missed because Ally Pally is strategically marooned midway between the extremities of both the Northern and Piccadilly lines and actually getting there is a challenge in itself. Second support were Californian punk band SWMRS, who I’m pleased to say, I did catch in their entirety. They’ve been active under differing names for sixteen years, but you wouldn’t know it as highly charismatic frontman Cole Becker is still only twenty-four years old. He’s effectively married the childhood sweetheart he met at nursery.
Cole leapt his way through eight electrifying numbers, a highlight of which included Miley, possibly the strangest tribute Miley Cyrus has yet had in her career. “Miley is a punk rock queen”, sung by the band and a by now very full floor, rebounded several times around the Great Hall before finally coming to rest just in time for a supreme cover of the Supergrass classic Alright. Having played supports to the likes of All Time Low and now Cage The Elephant, it’s about time this band had a major venue UK headline tour of their own.
There was a break of around forty minutes following SWMRS’ departure, during which a smoke machine on piece rates behind the stage continuously pumped smog into the auditorium. I’d be surprised if any asthmatics in the audience weren’t reaching nervously for the Ventolin by the time Cage The Elephant hit the stage. As a photographer I find this habit particularly irritating and I can’t believe peering through clouds of smoke was really enhancing the audience experience either. Who wants to see the drummer anyway? I digress.
To a blast of eyebrow testing pyrotechnics, the band opened with Broken Boy, first track on their latest, critically acclaimed studio release Social Cues. It’s a record about fame, alienation, and the relentless demands and personal conflicts that touring and recording in a successful rock band can bring. It’s not original (The Wall, anyone?), but it’s no less valid for that. Broken Boy leaves you in no doubt where things are headed: “Tell me why I was born to live in this skin, tell me how I’m supposed to be forgiven. With my hand in the hive and the sun in my eyes, yeah”.
Cage The Elephant are a six-piece, but all eyes are transfixed on frontman Matt Shultz, whose visceral stage presence is the stuff of legend. During previous shows on the Social Cues tour he took to obscuring his face with varying masks but tonight, save for an early but quickly dispensed with pair of wide-rimmed spectacles, we get to see him accessory-free. He wore multiple layers, the first of which was removed in the opening seconds. By the end, he was naked from the waist up. Shultz jumped and gyrated, twitched and twerked, scuttling from stage edge to stage edge like an amphetamine crazed crab. The stage was split level with the drums and keys raised to the back. It gave Shultz more room to career about.
The Grand Hall is a big space and it takes an awful lot of people to fill it. The first third of the crowd was fully wedged, a mass of humanity swaying and jumping as one with a common goal to emulate the showman. Shultz commended the audience for looking out for each other. “That’s some special shit” he said, when he observed help offered to someone who had misplaced their footing. After three songs in a photo pit nearly as manic as the people behind the barrier, I retired further back to watch without risking my spleen being bent out of shape. Back in the final third there was room to breathe and to dance with limbs outstretched. Impromptu congas abounded.
The set list was a sensible run out of new material (Social Cues, Tokyo Smoke) with more than a nod to established classics (Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked, Cigarette Dreams). Through the main set there was barely a let up in pace. The only real change in dynamic came at the start of a four song encore with Love’s The Only Way: “This song goes out to anyone who has lost love, been lost in love, but not been lost by love” said Shultz, and then after a brief pause “This song goes out to my wife”. For all the crazed running about during the songs, Shultz sounds fragile and introspective between them. That’s hardly surprising. Prior to making Social Cues, he split from his wife, the French model Juliette Buchs, and suffered the loss of three close friends. In previous interviews, he has said it’s a miracle that he’s still with us at all. Those stage antics and the dark themes running through the new record are not just for show.
After a hugely enjoyable and impressive one hundred-minute, twenty-two song set the band closed with Sabertooth Tiger from the 2011 sophomore album Thank You, Happy Birthday. Shultz walked on hands above the crowd as confetti canons gave the cleaners palpitations and the audience went absolutely crazy. Cage The Elephant are a band with a phenomenal live show that everyone should see at least once in their lives.
We Are The Champions played to the auditorium as the lights came up. It’s an often-overused trope at the end of gigs. Not so here. We filed out of the Great Hall into the even colder night air, smiles emblazoned on faces. Now all we’ve got to do is to try and find a way to get home…
Cage The Elephant at Alexandra Palace. Review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk