Words: Callie Petch

When I get to the lengthy queue outside of Manchester Academy 2, my mind is not focussed on the gig I’m about to see.  Instead, it’s fretting about the wallet I managed to lose before setting off but didn’t realise was lost until after I’d gotten parked in a nearby multi-storey.  The card and ID and cash which were inside, the digital wallet that I’d emergency set-up upon discovery also not appearing to work, and the very real risk that I’m about to be stuck in Manchester overnight with no means of being able to pay for anything or go anywhere.  My brain being my brain, I’m in a proper panic and my headspace for this show I was really excited to be covering is all wrong.  I fully expect to spend tonight stuck in my own head, unable to concentrate and spiralling over a situation I cannot control.

Photo by Callie Petch

Blessedly, this does not turn out to be the case.  (And not just because, as the fact that I’m writing these words should make clear, my digital wallet does finally kick in and I’m able to get home.)  In fact, if anything, it’s the kind of headspace which turns out to be most amenable to opening act Belot.  The Brit School alumni is a freely-admitted “mentally ill” weirdo, whose self-professed “awkward pop” – involving often embarrassing lyrical confessions of friend crushes and elaborate fan-fic scenarios about Modern Family’s Phil Dunphey stuck a drug-fuelled rager – is backed up by an on-stage persona which motormouths in detail all the cringe-inducing stories behind those songs.  One song is introduced with the acknowledgement that it was a silly effort at doing an Eminem impression not intended to see the light of day until it got to her management team; “I know I don’t have a tenth of the swag of Eminem” she self-effaces.

Despite how this might read on-paper, I find all of Belot’s antics very endearing, as do the near-capacity audience.  Though her outfit – trench coat, giant garish sunglasses – may seem cartoonish, I don’t get any hint of try-hard-iness or insincerity from her stage presence or banter.  It’s charmingly awkward and unpolished.  Plus, it helps that Belot can really write a tune.  Her sound belongs to the same school of genre-blending Internet blog-pop that Remi Wolf has been mining to similarly successful ends.  “V.I.P.” has the addictive bounce of someone who understands why Beck’s forays into rap don’t end up toe-curling (respecting the craft whilst also acknowledging how goofy a slacker’s voice sounds when rapping).  “Harmless Fun” (the Phil Dunphey song) is a groovy slice of pop-funk.  And “Kiss You” makes going into total delusional denial about getting friend-zoned sound like the funnest bubblegum villain origin theme possible.  Everybody is here for the headliner, but a not insignificant part of the crowd do take Belot up on her offer to get drunk at the bar once the show wraps up.

Photo by Callie Petch

On that note, The Aces.  When this show was originally announced back at the end of April, it was scheduled for the 520-capacity Gorilla.  Shortly after, it got upgraded to the nearly-double-sized Academy 2 and, as doors open, is less the 50 tickets away from being a sellout.  Last time they were in Manchester, in 2018, they were playing the 175-capacity Soup Kitchen; two nights before this, they played a sold-out Koko in London, their biggest show to date.  Safe to say the Utah-based indie-pop four-piece are having a very well-earned breakthrough moment.  Their unashamedly queer, vulnerably honest lyricism, paired with irresistible power pop hooks has won them a growing and devoted fanbase who relate completely to these songs of intense longing and self-conscious anxiety.  Not only are the choruses of every song played tonight sang back with entire damn chests, you can look around during any song and see somebody somewhere having A Moment as it speaks to them.

Whilst outright stage banter is minimal, The Aces meet this devotion with equally loving energy.  All four take the stage in matching leather jacket suit-and-tie outfits and waste little time launching into hits off their excellent new album, I’ve Loved You for So Long.  “Always Get This Way” has a Belinda Carlisle sheen masking despair-fuelled lyrics about constantly being on the verge of a mental breakdown whilst nobody cares; a subject that “Don’t Freak” also explores with a bit more humour and a choir finale that the room is happy to replicate.  “Girls Make Me Wanna Die” is a sugar-rush pop-rock number about the struggles of first queer love in the Internet age.  “Suburban Blues” gets a massive reception for an album deep-cut, likely because its Midwest emo anxieties about never escaping your regressive smalltown resonates majorly with the overwhelmingly queer audience in attendance tonight.

Photo by Callie Petch

Throughout, I am repeatedly put in mind of The 1975.  It’s a comparison I’ve felt ever since first hearing “Don’t Think” in 2021, but seeing The Aces live has only strengthened the connection.  Sonically, they both pair unashamed 80s pop glimmer and hooks with modern electronic flourishes which, at their best, sound like both lost classics and properly contemporary.  Lyrically, they’re direct and earnest – arguably more so than The 1975 since The Aces don’t feel like they need to chase every slice of soul-bearing with an ironic joke – with a focus on modern youth in a way that their audience internalise and relate to.  And on-stage, aside from frontwoman Cristal Ramirez having a lot of the same swaggering dance moves and non-verbal audience commands as Matty Healy, they are likewise a tight connected unit who play with passionate professionalism.  Cristal’s guitar has sound issues for a good half of the set on the songs she’s meant to be playing it for, but if you closed your eyes you wouldn’t be able to tell because the band rock on unfazed.  Lead guitarist Katie Henderson more than filling the space and the rhythm section of bassist McKenna Petty and drummer Alisa Ramierz acting as the driving bedrock.

The key difference, of course, is that The Aces are openly queer, rather than mere (often extremely clumsy) queer allies.  And you can tell that safe space in their music and live show means the world to the assembled tonight.  Cristal announces that, for the duration of the gig, “this is motherfuckin’ pride right here!” to a loud cheer and multiple LGBTQA+ flags waving in the air.  I spot several lesbian couples swaying in each other’s arms and making out during “Stop Feeling.”  I’ve Loved You for So Long gets a complete airing across the 70-minute set, but the cuts from prior albums When My Heart Felt Volcanic and Under My Influence (which they were unable to tour due to COVID) also get rapturous responses.  Main set ender “Daydream” and encore closer “Stuck” get the whole room jumping, and both times the band take a bow and walk off-stage the crowd make it very clear that want to hear so much more.

Hopefully, The Aces won’t be keeping us waiting very long for that additional encore performance.  You know that a show is damn good when it’s able to make you stop worrying about a lost wallet and just lose yourself in great music and safe vibes.