I’m going to be completely honest with you, as I am sure you would want me to be.
I had no idea who Tonight Alive were before this summer.
Somehow, despite their growing stature, relentless touring, a song on the soundtrack of this year’s new Spiderman film and a Sony Music marketing budget, they simply hadn’t appeared on my radar. Their core fan base seemingly skewing towards a younger generation, perhaps I’m just too old.
Nevertheless, at the behest of a computer algorithm’s “…you might like…’ suggestion of all things, I streamed their most recent album, 2013’s The Other Side, whilst staring at the ceiling one hot summer night, unable to sleep.
The album made a significant impression and became a staple of my listening over the next few weeks. In a sea of ‘pop-punk’ bands and their teenage advocates, Tonight Alive’s sound seemed to be more accomplished, more sophisticated. Importantly for my tastes, it also had a distinctly metal edge. And lyrically, there were meaty themes documented in poetic ways. This was more than just, “he loves me, he loves me not.”
And so it is that I find myself at Manchester Academy on a relatively mild winter’s evening, shuffling along in the queue to get in to a sold out show with a crowd set to be 2,500 strong. I do feel a little aged when, having made it in to the building, and despite the capacity crowd, the bars are empty and the merch booths rammed. I could easily pass myself off as nearly every one of these kids’ parents.
But when the headline set starts, I simply couldn’t care less.
Opening with some well-staged back-lighting and a helpfully placed curtain, the first bars of the aforementioned Spidey song “The Edge” ring out. Bursts of light show the band poised behind the curtain ready to let rip. The tension grows, the audience scream and, just at the right moment, the curtain drops and the show sets course for the stratosphere.
From the get-go, the band’s energy and stagecraft impress. Jenna McDougall struts, moshes, throws convincing shapes AND manages to deliver a vocal performance that any singer would be hugely proud of. Her relatively small frame is capable of producing an enormous sound that doesn’t waver or fade despite the on-stage athletics.
The rest of the band is entirely on-point, too. The music sounds tight, practiced, HUGE and thrilling in a live setting. Whakaio Taahi’s and Jake Hardy’s guitar interplay delivers seamless sonic power, with Cam Adler’s bass and drummer Matt Best bringing the big beats – particularly when the sound crew make Best’s snare sound like the impact of an Exocet missile at just the right moments.
The band barely pause for breath as they whip through just as up-beat renditions of “The Fire”, “Don’t Wish”, “Hell and Back” and “The Ocean.” Jenna chats for just long enough between songs to let the Mancunian crowd know that they are acknowledged and loved. Carefully considered or not, the sentiments feel truthful and authentic, and have the audience baying for more.
After the belting blast of The Other Side’s “Bathwater”, the lights go down and the band walks off stage. A few of the audience look around in alarm, but they needn’t worry. In just a few moments Jenna is back with just an acoustic guitar and a mic, perching herself on the edge of the stage and communing with the superfans in the front row.
Not just a chance to usher in a more intimate moment in the show, this central section of the gig also allows Jenna the opportunity to revisit a time in her life prior to joining Tonight Alive when she was writing for herself and her acoustic six-string. She lets it be known that this show is Tonight Alive’s biggest headline show ever, anywhere in the world, before asking the audience to put away their phones and enjoy the moment with her. They oblige with little fuss as she sings beautifully stripped back versions of “Let It Land” and then “Amelia”, the latter of which she says she wants us to think of as a celebration of life, not a reminder of death. And it feels just that.
The tempo ramps up again for a confident, triumphant run through more material from The Other Side and select tracks from earlier LP What Are You So Scared Of? The set is punctuated by a delightful surprise in a mean rendition of Rage Against The Machine classic “Killing In The Name Of” that bristles with urgent anger, but falls short of that song’s most infamous refrain. It’s a shame that it gets pulled up without that particular punch, but Jenna clearly knows her crowd.
In the second biggest “will they, won’t they” moment of the night, Tonight Alive bring things to a close with a rousing version of hit song and fan favourite “Lonely Girl”, which looked in danger of being overlooked, before stalking off stage to rapturous applause. Within seconds thousands of voices are chanting “We want more!”, and the TA crew oblige with a three-song encore. The small matter of a band and crowd selfie dealt with, Jenna and Co. seem reluctant to make the final bow, but they do, blowing kisses as they go.
Seeing Tonight Alive in a live setting is almost akin to the contemporary pop-rock equivalent of The Boss. Here is a band that work their proverbial butts off, seemingly take nothing for granted, ooze an air of positivity and radiate gratitude, warmth, compassion and concern towards their fans. More cynical or hardened hearts could point towards the shows big moments as being well rehearsed rather than spontaneously off-the-cuff, but it’s only in being so well drilled that Tonight Alive can deliver spur of the moment surprises when they come.
As the fans leave the Academy and disappear in to the night, it’s apparent that these Aussie rockers have stepped up to their biggest hour with a fine performance. They’ve delivered and it’s true: tonight we feel alive.
Tonight Alive played:
“Hell and Back”
“Let It Land” (acoustic)
“Killing In The Name Of” (Rage Against the Machine cover)
“What Are You So Scared Of?”
“Eject, Eject, Eject!”
“Breaking & Entering”
“The Other Side”
You can watch fan-shot footage of the band performing “Listening” at the Manchester Academy show below: