Do-it-yourself artists obviously have resources at their disposal that simply weren’t there for musicians of the past. But that doesn’t necessarily put success any closer within reach, nor does it grant an artist any listeners.
The fact that Alex Giannascoli recorded his first album as a senior at Haverford High School, even in today’s day and age, is an impressive achievement, and by attracting his initial fan base in organic fashion, he set the course for what would be a remarkable rise to prominence over the course of a decade while staying true to his lo-fi sound and his hands-on approach to creating unreserved songs.
Recently selling out two back-to-back shows at Ottobar in Baltimore as his musical vehicle known as Alex G, previously known as (Sandy) Alex G, showed his momentum hasn’t been slowed by the pandemic.
Like many artists, he’d released new work in the fall of 2019 leading up to the nationwide shutdown of live venues the following spring. But Giannascoli’s most recent offering, Houses of Sugar, was grown from the same seeds as his earlier recordings and, like most, was critically acclaimed — an album that has helped Alex G to more than 1.1 million current monthly listeners, and one that shows how much ground he likes to cover in a given recording.
A title playing off the name of a Philadelphia casino and the Brothers Grimm story Hansel and Gretel, House of Sugar is said to address our self-centered society and its encouragement of the excesses. On a rainy evening on Oct. 29 in Baltimore, the album’s cover artwork—an alluring female skater on purplish-blue ice, a scene from some cosmic fable — backdropped the Ottobar stage.
And given that the band is still essentially promoting that release — called out by Pitchfork as one of the best rock albums of 2019 — it would be leveraged to fuel an incredible set of music, delivered to an enthusiastic audience packed in tight, many there for a second consecutive night of music.
“Alex is the reason I play guitar,” asserted one fan in the front row, discussing tabs he’d made of the band’s songs as everyone mingled and waited for Alex and crew to take the stage — it was a statement that spoke to the impact Giannascoli has made and continues to make on those who see him as an indie scene pioneer.
Watch the official video for Alex G’s 2019 single “Gretel” from House of Sugar via the band’s YouTube channel:
The track “Gretel — the second single from House of Sugar — showed out of the gate how much rougher around the edges Alex’s songs can materialize when performed live, this one in particular almost taking you off guard with force. It built off of a distorted audio track before bursting into an illusory, promising cadence while its words were charged with repudiation:
“I don’t wanna go back
Nobody’s gonna push me off track,
I see what they do
Good people got something to lose,
I don’t wanna go back
Nobody’s gonna push me off track,
I don’t wanna be this
Good people gotta fight to exist.”
“Southern Sky,” another standout from House of Sugar, quickly showed the varied responsibility to be shared by Alex and fellow guitarist Sam “Sack” Sacchione, who shifted over to the keyboard for this second track to lead its piano-heavy groove while Alex injected his lulling vocals to cast the group’s fantastic signature bubble around the tune and establishing the mood of the room.
Supported by the buoyant precision of bassist John Wesley Heywood and the stamina and dexterity drummer of Tom Kelly, the band whipped through songs that seemed free to roam — outraged one moment, convalescent the next, authentically fitting but additionally strengthening the hallmark of this band.
Watch the official video for Alex G’s 2019 single “Southern Sky” from Houses of Sugar via the band’s YouTube channel:
No doubt surprising any of the audience members who weren’t familiar with him, Sacchione showed he could build up wicked, unrelenting chords that undoubtedly enhanced not just the texture but the emotions of songs like “After Your Gone” from 2014’s DSU and “Kicker” from 2015’s Beach Music, a track that saw Sack hammer his Telecaster with his fist, press it to his amp and then forge a wailing solo out of all the noise.
Alex himself a refined, celebrated instrumentalist, reminded that he too can pull amazing sounds out of the guitar and simultaneously guide each track with an affectionate expression. Widely respected not just within indie rock circles, Alex’s profile got a boost when he was invited to contribute to Frank Ocean’s wildly popular 2016 album Blonde.
Rotating between his Framus electric, his Fender acoustic and a seat at the keys, Alex marveled with his nonchalance—a naturally gifted band leader who, while clearly immersed in his music and dialed in with his bandmates, was gracious and thanked fans, even hugging the young man who’d talked about tabs and how much the music meant to him.
And ultimately rewarded for the two sold-out nights, those present for Alex G’s second gig at Ottobar were served a robust encore of as many as six songs, including some that ticketholders had belted from the floor, tracks like “Sarah” from the 2012 album Trick and “Crab” from Alex’s debut, Race, a song that epitomizes Alex’s piano-driven, circus tight-rope vibe heard throughout his songbook.
Stream Alex G’s most recent studio album, House of Sugar, via Spotify:
Fans — plenty hydrated — were engaged with the band throughout the final series of songs, suggesting or maybe more so demanding certain favorites as Alex and his mates let their guard down, unquestionably present in the moment and grateful to be so. He thanked those who, that night, had waited outside in the rain before the doors opened.
“I feel like everyone here just loves music and going to shows and stuff,” he grinned during the encore as the crowd squeezed itself closer to the stage. “I have that feeling.”
After Ur Gone
Encore included: Sarah, Crab, Message
Here are images of Alex G, as well as the night’s opener, Exum, performing at Ottobar in Baltimore on Oct. 29, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.