Gig Review: Alt-J



Who: Alt-J

Where: Festival Hall, Melbourne

When: 30th July 2013

I must admit to being a bit of a slow burner, when it comes to jumping on the hype bandwagon for most up and coming bands. Particularly those that are thrust into the limelight right from the off, when it’s something that is more often than not, based on the back of just a single or two, or having an instant growth in column inches as a result of a Pitchfork thumbs up, or dare I say it, being splattered on the cover of the weekly “music” magazine that is the NME. A peculiar stance for a music loving blogger I know! It was because of this, that it took me quite a few listens to be convinced by the mass hysteria that seemed to follow the release of Alt-J’s debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’. I was however slowly but surely, turned onto the fact that what they had produced with that release, was something a little different indeed, and something I’ve returned to over & over.



With tonight’s performance having long since sold out, it was going to be intriguing to see, if their live performance would have progressed in anyway, from their St. Jeromes Laneway appearance here at the turn of the year. Having taken quite awhile to eventually being allowed entry into the venue, I took my seat to the left of all those who were facing the stage on foot. By this point Snakadaktal were nearing the end of their set, which was something I had hope’d to have seen from the start. Alas having witnessed them perform their hazy electronic embedded tunes, without any sort of oomph or impetus whatsoever, I wasn’t too disappointed to have missed out. That may sound a bit harsh, but I think this was just too cavernous a venue for their sound, to have worked well in.

Prior to Alt-J’s appearance the mix of excitement, tension and awe, amongst the over eager crowd was pretty damn palpable. It was this desire and hunger  that was more than emphatically liberated, by the arrival on stage of  Joe Newman – vox/guitar, Thom Green – drums, Gus Unger-Hamilton – keys/piano and Gwil Sainsbury guitar/bass. They aligned side by side across the stage, with Green’s kit placed upon a raised platform. Unger-Hamiltons keys signalled that “Intro” would, rather aptly, start off the show, while the arrival of Newman’s vocals half way through, on top of Sainsbury’s reverberating bass, had the crowd mesmerised. A faultless a-capella run through of “Interlude 1/Ripe & Ruin”, was swiftly followed up with opening notes of “Tessellate”, a version that tonight, was given some extra spice via Green’s phenomenal drumming capabilities, something which was the main highlight for me, throughout tonight’s proceedings.

As sonically tight as they were tonight, their inability to be anything but static while on stage, especially evident during “Something Good”,  is a big no no in my book. Granted Sainsbury seemed to be a tad bit active for the most part, while Green’s arms flailed around as if he had been set alight – all the while never missing a beat – the only real thing that Newman and Unger-Hamilton could reliably muster, was to move their lips and finger tips. As immovable as half the band seemed to be while performing, the audience’s didn’t fair much better it must be said. Having a birds eye view of the whole standing area, it was mainly just the first couple of rows, particularly those centre stage, that had any sort of life in them for the entirety of the night.



Red tinged lights then pierced out from the stage and into the audience, during “Buffalo”, a song that appears on the soundtrack to ‘Silver Linings Playbook’. New song “Warm Foothills” was next, and although it’s a slower paced number, it included all the hallmarks of an Alt-J song, along with some solo whistling from Newman thrown in for good measure. However I am pretty sure that Sainsbury had exited the stage during most of, if not for all of it, which wasn’t something I’d say was meant to happen. The cracks in Newman’s vocals, that had been slightly hit and miss, came to the fore during “Dissolve Me” and “Fitzpleasure”, when he struggled to hit the high notes, something he hadn’t suffered from during the opening numbers. However the latter of the two songs, got a great reaction from the crowd, so I’m guessing that issue was lost on a majority of them! The vocal problems were still evident during “Slow Dre” – their mash up cover of Kylie and Dr. Dre that appeared on Triple J’s ‘Like a Version’.

A very tight sounding “Matilda”, received a rapturous response from all in attendance, and was the perfect set up for the guys to feed right into “Interlude 2/Guitar”. Unger-Hamilton’s introduction to “Bloodflood”, was reminiscent of something straight out of a horror movie slasher scene, while Green’s thumping drums were once again quite prevalent throughout, the one negative of this tracks performance, was that Newman’s vocals were still a tad bit out of kilter. The final two tracks of the main set were “Ms” and fan favourite “Breezeblocks”. By the time the former was over Newman was yet to acknowledge the crowd,  and even though Unger-Hamilton had taken over the minimal crowd communication duties, it’s still bad form from a front man, when you’re hitting the 50 minute mark. Funnily enough the crowd didn’t seem to mind one bit, as the one they really wanted to hear all night – the aforementioned “Breezeblocks” was rolled out, and for the first time in what seemed aeons, Newman’s spectacular, yet peculiar vocal capabilities, didn’t let him, the band or the crowd down the latter of which lapped it up.


Unger-Hamilton at play

With a main set that lasted less than an hour, the encore began with just Newman and Unger-Hamilton returning for a mellow rendition of “Hand Made” – from their self titled EP – which included the sounds of an accompanying glockenspiel. There was then an intimate a-ccapella take on College’s “A Real Hero” from the ‘Drive’ soundtrack. Green and Sainsbury then re-joined their bandmates, so as to finish up with a powerful, yet airy version of “Taro”. The vocals from Newman and Unger-Hamilton were at times quite spine tingling, whilst the Bollywood-esque guitar sound, alongside Green’s delicate drumming, displayed just how well in-sinc Alt-J are with one another as performers. They left to an abundance of cheers, loud applause and many a set of hands raised in the triangular shape, that these four lads from Leeds, are by now well used to seeing. There’s no doubting, that the next time Alt-J arrive in Melbourne, they’ll move up a notch in venue choice, which will also most definitely sell out.


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