All words: William Alberque
All photos: Joy Asico
Alex Winston put on an astonishing performance, with a booming voice filling the room, a mesmerizing stage presence (including multiple runs through the audience), and overwhelming tunes thundering out of her well-drilled six-person (!) backing band. Shame on you for missing this show – which will be remembered like the XX at DC9 or Beirut at the Warehouse Space – a great band on its way to the top.
Alex Winston was not supposed to be this good, live. I mean, I loved the songs I downloaded (on the recommendation of the Guardian, naturally) – “Animal Baby” and her self-recorded “Basement Covers EP” (Mumford and Sons, Francis and the Lights, Rolling Stones, Jack Peñate, and the Teddy Bears). Things got even better with the superb Choice Notes and Velvet Elvis 7”s, and the Sister Wife EP. “Velvet Elvis” in particular is an irresistible slice of galloping indie pop, with Winston sounding like an American Lykke Li or a joy-filled Bat for Lashes.
I had a sneaking suspicion that, like Grimes, it’d be one woman with a laptop (or an acoustic guitar), hitting play and struggling through the hits. So, you can imagine my surprise when I came around the corner to face the stage after a charming, if overly-long set by Long Walks on the Beach (anyone else thinking of When People Were Shorter and Lived Near the Water?) only to find six people on stage and Alex nowhere in sight. To the left, a guy with a mandolin, a guy with a guitar, and a backup singer; in the center, a drummer and a bassist; and on the right, a keyboardist/maraca player.
As I’m taking this all in, the beautiful Alex Winston herself bounds up the steps and onto the stage, resplendent in leopard print pants and bare feet. With no ado, they launch into “Fire Ant,” and instantly I’m struck by her booming voice and impressive range. Often, on her recorded content, she sings in a precious, delicate, high-pitched voice, but live, one can feel her opera training in one’s chest cavity. Impressive. And, did I mention she’s mesmerizingly pretty? No? She is. The backing band adds far more noise than I expected, with layered guitars and a fine rhythm section – and fantastic backing vocals.
Alex Winston is well on her way to being a massive star.
The song goes quiet for a moment before booming out again into full life, slowing once more before thrashing to an astounding climax. I’m agog, and we’re exactly one song in. “Run Rumspringa,” a new song from Winston’s upcoming debut album, King Con, is another song of electrifying energy, featuring the massed backing vocals of the whole band and some good guitar work, sounding like a bit of an ersatz spaghetti western theme tune. She grabs a tambourine and dances all over the stage, singing and banging out a beat with real gusto. She is leonine and mesmerizing on stage, all purrs and poses with the possibility of a sudden scratch. And the crowd knows the words?!?? Did I mention the album’s not out yet?
Winston expresses astonishment at the size of the crowd – this is their first show in the States after a year of touring around England and the rest of Europe. She apologizes for playing new tracks, but wants to big up the new album, following with “Host,” slowing things down a bit. Of course, she can’t help but add energy to the encounter, jumping up on the bass drum to face the audience, while they all sing along. I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed; but the comfort food of “Velvet Elvis” starts with its unmistakable intro and completely unforgettable melody. Now I’m singing along with my hands in the air (and, yes, I just don’t care) as the audience goes into hyper drive.
The winning “Locomotive” is next, with an insistent, train-like rhythm and gorgeous lyrics. Alex leaps into the crowd, forming a dancing ring on the floor with Alex as a whirling, singing blur in the center, and it feels for all the world like I’m part of an open secret between the band and the fans. It’s truly special, and I’m getting a bit emotional recalling it all for you. I’m witnessing and participating in the greatest moment I’ve seen in this magical space. Alex clambers back on stage and asks if we mind if she slows things down for the next two minutes. Not at all, AW, you’ve earned a breather. Instead, she plays a heartbreakingly beautiful torch song, called “Guts.” The band pull together a vocal chorus of real beauty, but its Alex on show now – a truly gifted vocalist with an extraordinary range.
Alex introduces Sara, backing vocalist and childhood friend from growing up in Michigan calling her “my sister wife” and snuggling before launching into, yeah, you guessed it, “Sister Wife.” Everyone (including me) sings every word. They play something else next – not on the setlist – with Alex grabbing an electric guitar and doing a fairly credible St. Vincent impression. Nice.
In the next interlude Alex describes driving around DuPont Circle, lost, and putting her makeup on instants before jumping on stage, by way of introducing “Don’t Care about Anything” from the Sister Wife EP, following with Choice Notes b-side “Medicine.” The latter has an unexpected disco-ish beat, with a banjo backing, and a huge backing chorus. Winston tosses her tambourine into the audience (the keyboardist makes the girl who caught it play along with the beat); while she crawls over to the bass drum and starts punching it to highlight the beat. I’ve never seen anything like it, and she’s going mad, picking it up and tossing it aside before leaping into the audience and organizing another mass dance-along. The crowd are dancing and singing, “Won’t take my medicine, I won’t settle my debts, no; so helpless for your love, so thanks for nothing” at the top of their lungs.
She ends with “Choice Notes,” standing and teetering on the leading edge of the monitor for the entire song. It’s absolutely astonishing with a full backing band, booming forth and filling the entire room. I’m utterly spent afterwards, but have to wait to meet her and ask her to sign her singles. She does, and she’s gracious, charming, witty, and utterly winning. The keyboardist glares at me balefully all the while, but we keep chatting – about her walking away from a previous label for wanting her to be a plastic pop star and refusing to compromise. I’m utterly giggly when she gives me a series of hugs before I finally have to let her go. Stars in my eyes, I head out into the night.