How Things Change: An Alex G Live Review

A recent Alex G show got me thinking about his fandom, his evolution, and my favorite artist ever.

How Things Change: An Alex G Live Review

This is the most I've ever written about Alex G. He's been my favorite musician for nearly a decade. I've heard all of his songs. All the ones that are only on Bandcamp, and the many dozens of "leaked" demos you need to scour YouTube to hear, or find an mp3 blog to acquire. In 2016, I wrote a short review about my first time seeing him live. I'm not linking it here because I was 21-years-old and why the hell would I ever invite people to read something I wrote when I was 21-years-old? The following year I wrote a review of his 2017 album, Rocket, for an alt-weekly newspaper that no longer exists, so you can't find that review on the internet. Such is media.

Outside of bite-size blurbs and maybe a news-blog or two, I think that's it? I've never interviewed him. I almost did in 2019, but he decided he didn't want to do an interview with that outlet, and it fell through. I wasn't disappointed. I think I was relieved. I'm not scared to talk to any musicians, and I'm not scared to talk to him. I just don't think I want to. I don't feel like I need to. They say don't meet your heroes, right? I don't know if I'd consider him a hero. I don't know if I have heroes. But he puts sounds together like no one else I've ever heard. I think he's the most talented indie-rock artist of the last decade, at least. I also think he's not-so-quietly become the most influential indie artist of the last five years. Everyone wants to sound like him, but no one can. I think he's a generational talent. And I think his music is only getting better.

On August 31st, I saw him play in Pittsburgh at Stage AE, a venue I wrote a bit about when I saw Beach Bunny play there with Pup earlier this year. As I wrote then, it's a venue that some people in Pittsburgh dislike, but I've never had a problem with. That said, it's not always an easy venue for artists to make an impression in. The room seems to swallow opening acts, who are, as is custom, never turned up as loud as the headlining bands. The San Francisco band Tanukichan opened this show, and they did an admirable job trying to fill that room as just a three-piece playing dreamy, bass-driven indie-rock. They were remarkably locked-in, and while the quietly sticky hooks of 2023's Gizmo didn't come through, the unexpectedly shreddy instrumentation had the herd of college kids who clearly didn't know their music transfixed.

I came to the show knowing that Alex G would be the main course, but I was similarly excited to finally see Alvvays. I don't have much to say about their performance other than, "Wow, they're professionals." None of the bands throughout the night offered much in the way of banter, but Alvvays were particularly judicious in that regard, charging from song to song with little more than a few seconds of breathing room between each.

Even so, on every single track, Molly Rankin belted her lines without missing a single note. Not one! On record, it sounds like her voice is double-tracked to fill out those cherubic melodies, but she sounded just like that live. She really just sounds like that! What an immense talent she has to be able to sing like that, and while I felt like I had had my fill a few tracks before they finished up, some of those songs are just breathtakingly perfect. "In Undertow" and "Easy On Your Own?" especially. Those are just unblemished dream-pop gems. So sophisticated, yet so simple.

There were definitely plenty of people who were there to see Alvvays, but this was still clearly an Alex G show. I don't think it hit me until recently how big he's become. He has three times as many Spotify monthly listeners as Alvvays. Boygenius feel like the biggest indie band of the moment, and Alex has twice as many monthlies as them. That's just one metric of measure that often doesn't account for how an artist actually pulls live, but Alex G sold this venue out. Charli XCX couldn't even sell this venue out! He's an institution right now, and you could feel that palpable buzzines in the room that you only feel when a lot of young people are there to see their favorite band. I didn't feel it when I saw Big Thief at Stage AE, squeezed between beer-sipping milennials. But I felt it when Turnstile played there, and I felt it when the lights finally dropped and Alex and his bandmates waltzed out to take the stage, and you would've thought a minor popstar was trotting out from the way those teens screamed.

For all the radical evolutions in his sound and his steady, continuing climb in popularity, the bones of his live show have remained unchanged. It's been the same three guys backing him for nearly a decade; guitarist Sam Acchione, bassist John Heywood and drummer Thomas Kelly. Alex still plays with the same guitar he's used for ages, a profoundly ordinary looking brown Framus Panthera. And he's no more of a showman now than he was when I saw him for the first time in a 150-cap room in 2016, when he nervously rocked back and forth like a dock lurching dangerously under the stress of hurricane winds.

He still sways frumpily to his music's heel-digging grooves while clenching his teeth and gazing outward atop the crowd, never making eye contact with any of his bopping fans, and usually appearing to be lost in deep thought. It's not a cynical, holier-than-thou aloofness, or even necessarily a shy reticence. It's more of a casual, un-self-conscious focus. He's just in the zone, and after all these years, he still hasn't found a way to make that go-time face look enviably cool or even the tiniest bit swaggy.

When he does address the crowd, it's either a quick expression of gratitude or a banal quip. The other night, he made a generic "how we doin', Pittsburgh?"-type remark about our city's culinary fascination with stuffing french fries into sandwiches. It's the lowest common denominator topic for visiting bands to bring up onstage, and Alex failed to put a memorable spin on the tired local trope. At another break in between songs, while fans howled and applauded with feverish intensity, Alex leaned nonchalantly into the mic and let out a hearty, "Thanks a lot!," spoken with the dopey, obligatory enthusiasm of a kid whose mother just served him a big 'ole piece of pie.

Alex's almost shockingly dull onstage personality is, itself, as humorous and interesting to me now as it has been every time I've seen him. For someone so musically clever, his public-facing persona is remarkably — almost admirably — bland. I've yet to read an interesting interview with the guy, who notoriously stumps music journos with listless insights about his creative process, and routinely dodges pointed questions about his personal life and lyrics. In some ways, his writing has appeared to become more personally revealing in recent years (I'm thinking about "Hope," a sober tribute to friends lost to opiates, and "Miracles," where he head-on mentions the baby his longtime girlfriend recently gave birth to, and openly questions "how many more songs am I supposed to write?" before putting this venture to rest).

But his records have remained the hodge-podge of twisted fairytales, tragic vignettes, and intimate, hear-your-own-heartbeat confessionals that they've always been. The cold realities in his lyrics are as difficult as ever to pluck out from the fictional character studies, and he doesn't become anymore vulnerable or visibly touched when he plays certain ones live. As opposed to, say, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, who drunkenly waltzed along the same stage a year-and-a-half prior, crying soliloquies of heartbreak and debauchery that you know — even without knowing a lick about him — are coming straight from his own tattered lived experience.

Alex sings even his heaviest songs with an impersonal coolness, leaving it up to the fans to impart their own emotional connection onto them, and thus removing the temptations of parasocial god-making that typify so many of Alex's "screaming, crying, throwing up"-inducing contemporaries. To wit, his most popular song on streaming — and the one that lights the room up live — remains the old-school Trick highlight, "Mary," an uncharacteristically horny, bluesy ditty about a femme fatale that the narrator will give anything to be adored by. Tonally, it's completely out of step from the rest of his catalog, and he certainly isn't wetting anyone's eyes when he taunts, "I wanna hear your daddy sing along," before his band thrusts into a smoldering mini-jam that could reasonably get them confused for a Santana cover band on a blind listen.

Recently, two deep catalog cuts, the formally unreleased "Treehouse" (which Alex doesn't even sing on, instead letting Emily Yacina take the mic) and the Trick bonus track "16 Mirrors," have gone viral on TikTok. These are nothing more than weird, lo-fi nursery rhymes that offer none of the traditional singer-songwriter intimacy that many of his other, Elliot Smith-indebted old songs do. Toward the end of the show, I heard a high-school-age girl shriek with all the wind in her lungs for Alex to play "16 Mirrors," a creepy, scratchy — I'd even go so far as to say gratingly unlisentable — bonus track with an oblique message about childhood friendship. The fact that these, of all his songs, have found an adoring audience among his fans speaks to what people come to his music for, and why fans commune to see him play live.

There's been a noticeable uptick in anti-social audience behavior across genre lines, and I've heard plenty of horror stories about the way post-pandemic fans interact with Alex's indie-rock-star peers; demanding to be served an idealized version of their fandom, hurling inappropriately suggestive catcalls at the stage, feeling vehemently entitled to stick their phones up and get the whole set on shaky-cam. I didn't see any of that at this show. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how few "main character moments" I saw going down. No obnoxious, pick-me fan stunts to get the whole crowd's attention. Very little phone-zombie-ing. Just a lot of happy friend groups, couples, and even families gathering to witness the big G flop around in an oversized gray sweatshirt, with what looked like a hand-drawn skull doodled on its back.

We're there to see the man play, and goddamn does he do that now better than he ever has. For years, he was a studio hermit who used the other guys as hired hands during the live show, and there was always an awkward, unplanned shruggingness to the way he transposed the screechy noises (see: "Memory"), glitchy vocal effects and dying-calliope keys into a guitar-bass-drums ensemble. The songs sounded considerably different live, and the more spartan arrangements would, at best, provide a new window into a beloved track, or, at worst, severely underwhelm (the first time I saw him play "Sarah," one of the best indie-pop songs I've ever heard, was despairingly lackluster). After Rocket, he was forced to add a small keyboard to his rig to pull off "Sportstar," "Brick" and "Horse" (and it became useful for "Sarah," too), but his shows still lacked the dynamic je ne sais quoi of his studio creations.

Somewhere between the House of Sugar touring cycle and now, he and his bandmates hit a stride, and now they're a fucking powerhouse live act — something Pitchfork's Nina Corcoran correctly expressed her mystification at in a recent tweet. The overall volume of their sound has gotten wider and denser, and they've figured out ways to play his overwhelmingly docile catalog harder. For instance, the fibrous acoustic strums that open "Gretel" were played on electrics, buffed out with huge, distorted power chords and seismic drums that made me think an Alex G post-metal song might actually be fucking sick. It seemed like the kids knew this heaviness was coming, because a mosh pit instantly erupted, and I couldn't help but bang my head to a song that, on record, evokes the whispy twirl of newly-snuffed candle smoke.

The more "accessible" moments in his setlist got the kind of response festivals mine the drone footage for to make great B-roll for next year's trailer. The one-two punch of "Runner" into "Hope" had people ecstatically shaking and singing along with their entire mouths, not just gritting our teeth to hum the indecipherable squeaks of "Bug" or breathily huff the whispery grunts of "After You're Gone" — which we also did, later in the set. He has genuine sing-it-back-to-me songs to play with now, and his band are no longer doing the slacker indie-rock thing of taking their own hooks and climaxes for granted. They play those songs tight as hell, striking every chord and knocking every down-beat with the inertia they need to make the king of bedroom-pop sound like his night-side dresser resides in Madison Square Garden.

This tour's setlist leans heavy on his most recent album, 2022's God Save the Animals, and those tracks are where his growth as a performer is most apparent. Before the set began, a college-age girl next to me loudly hoped that he'd play older stuff because she didn't care for the latest record. Then, she stood beside me and proceeded to mouth every word to "Runner" and "No Bitterness," her skepticism visibly melting away in real-time. As someone who's been an Alex G fan for many years, and a 28-year-old who felt my advanced age in the pit where I was posted up with the zoomers, I'm at the point where I could reasonably bow out of his recent material and come to hear the oldies. I'm not there. Not even close. I think his last two records (especially 2019's House of Sugar) are his best full-length works, and my favorite moment of the night was hearing he and his bandmates jam on the fucking sick riff of God Save the Animals closer "Forgive." They tapped into some Perfect From Now On-era Built to Spill shit there, riding out that twangy, bumpy conclusion while Acchione yanked a glorious cacophony out of his fretboard for what felt like several minutes of rawk bliss.

Alex is an underrated master at threading dopamine-fountain grooves into his songs ("Snot," "Hollow," "Gretel," "Guilty," and "Walk Away" each have parts that, if played on loop, could make you see god), and he luxuriates on those moments in the live setting. The slumped-over wag of "Mission" was elongated into a narcotic slink, and he made sure the whisper/crash dynamics of "Ain't it Easy" were maximized by really cranking it during the bridges. (For my money, that latter track is top three on God Save..., and possibly a top 15 Alex G song.)

He's also got some new tools up there to play with. Bright, multi-colored light rigs flanked either side of the drum kit, adding a subtle yet useful splash of visual stimulation that made the loud parts feel ever louder. He's also got auto-tune hooked up to his mic now, allowing him to bleat digicore-dusted God Save the Animals cuts like "S.D.O.S.," "Immunity" and "No Bitterness," and to add an even more disorienting character to his monstrous howls during "Brick."

It's been eight years now, and I still feel confident calling Alex G my favorite artist. In college, I became known as the Alex G guy. My college radio moniker was DJ Brite Boy, and I spoke so reverently of the dude's music that I rallied several of my friends into becoming fans, and graduated with a flock of Alex G-loving buddies who probably still associate me with his music. I can trace the trajectory of my personal and social life through Alex G shows. I first saw him in my hometown of Rochester, NY, in a cramped bar venue alongside a couple friends, one of whom passed away last year. I'm glad I have that memory. Later, I saw him with roughly 20 great college friends at a free outdoor show that I'd probably select if I was asked to pick my favorite concert ever.

Once I moved to Pittsburgh, I took another friend in an attempt to convert him into the brotherhood, but he walked away unsold. You can't win 'em all! The next time, I saw Alex with a couple of my best college friends, one of whom has kind of moved on from his music at this point. The other, my wonderful Endless Scroll co-host Eric, has moved away, so it's unclear when we'll next see the G-man together. The last two times I saw Alex, I took my girlfriend, who loves God Save the Animals and is now all-in on him as a live act. Something about making the pilgrimage with her feels full-circle, and that really came into focus for me during this show's encore.

Contrary to what the lyin' contributors on say, he started the encore section with "Message," a song from Rules that I've loved for years, but never expected to hear him pull out live. I know he also played "Harvey" during this portion, and I don't remember him playing "Forever," but says he did, so maybe he did. (I thought it was "Kicker," but I was too lost in the moment to take any notes.) I had peaked at the setlists he'd been playing throughout this tour and knew he was going to either close with "Snot" (my favorite Alex G song) or "Message," so I knew I was going to walk away beaming no matter what. Then he took a hard-left. I saw him mouth to his bandmates that they were closing with "Change," a longtime fan-fav, and a song that, when I first heard it as 21-year-old, felt like the most devastatingly relatable song I'd ever encountered.

I let out a sobering, "Oh shit," my eyes widening and preparing for the possibility of a falling tear or two. I didn't have much time to luxuriate in my anticipation, though. Once the bouncy "Harvey" ended, it felt like mere seconds passed and then he was crooning, "How are you to-day?" while the crowd murmured in unison. "I saw your friend's band play/A little show last night/It's not my thing, they were alright." That line never fails to get a smile out of me. For the rest of the first and second verses, I blacked out, perceiving the nervous fidget in my gut that those chords always induce; that throb of nostalgia that's not tied to any specific memories, but places me in the cold fall air of 2015, and all the subsequent blips of 20-something ennui that "Change" has soundtracked for me since.

By the time I came to he was in that final refrain, "I don't like how things change." My throat buzzed along instinctively to each repetition, eyes locked to Alex's teeth-gritted mouth. But "Change" didn't end after two minutes and four seconds, like it does on the recording, or like it did any of the prior times I saw him strum it out. His band did that thing they've now learned to do so well, taking the final note down to a simmering ring and then slowly lifting it back up, hoisting it above their heads and up into the rafters, and then settling into a mesmerizing jam. Fans were pumping their fists. My arms were crossed over my chest and I couldn't stop rocking and twisting my neck from side to side. I couldn't stop smiling at the saddest song I've ever heard.

"Sometimes, I do like how things change," I thought to myself.