Arriving at the SEC Armadillo on Sunday (21 October), the crowd largely consisted of what you’d expect for an indie band like alt-J: young adults decked out in Chandler Bing-esque vintage shirts and nose rings galore. There was a fair crowd of middle-aged fans and, particularly during the performance of the supporting folk trio AK Patterson, a fair amount of canoodling couples who seem to have paid £30 each simply for a seat to make out in. Nonchalant bitterness aside, it all appeared to be pretty much what one might expect.
But then the lights dropped, and three men in all black walked on stage and took their places, each dramatically encaged in a distinct third of the stage by bars hanging from the ceiling. The audience was held in anticipation in total darkness for what felt like minutes. And when that first note of their debut album’s “Something Good” rang out, the whole stage was stunningly illuminated and the crowd let out a resounding cheer – I knew I was in for something special.
There’s no doubt this concert was a performance in all senses of the word, with a sensational light show carefully choreographed to each song, each a totally different spectacle. It worked perfectly in holding the audience in tense anticipation for those exquisite pauses alt-J does so well before unleashing a wall of sound. And that sound was excellent, the layering of vocals and instruments totally filling the space in an enthralling, sometimes seat-rattling experience. I’m usually not the biggest fan of seated gigs, but this worked. The audience as a whole largely sat back and took in the performance like in a cinema, awestruck and often in near silence (apart from the occasional drunkenly defiant boogie-er), and then bursting into earnest cheers at the close of each song.
While this was a powerful experience, the intensely epileptic performance of “Fitzpleasure” as their pre-encore finale being a particular highlight, I must admit something did feel a little lacking in this setup. Something about how carefully choreographed the show was felt a little artificial and left something to be desired. The stage set up was theatrical and added magnificent power to those moments of intense sound and visuals, but restricted the band members from interacting with each other and even from really moving from a single spot – keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton looking particularly C3P0-like at times. And there was little audience interaction, the band going for long chunks of the show not acknowledging the crowd whatsoever. Most notably, there was hardly any stylistic variation from recorded tracks. Don’t get me wrong, Joe Newman’s main vocals are stunningly emotive, but when every quaver sounds exactly like it does in the studio track it did feel rather artificial – pretty much like they were just playing Spotify’s “This is alt-J” playlist over the sound system. All of this contributed to a lacking in something of the vitality and messiness of what I’ve come to love about live music.
Just when the band left stage and I was resigning myself to this judgement, thinking that this maybe just wasn’t the right kind of music for that energy and atmosphere, they came back on stage for the encore and, to some extent, turned things around. As they broke out into their encore, Unger-Hamilton called for the audience to get up and dance, and the vast majority of the downstairs seating swelled to the front of the stage, unleashing their pent-up energy to the powerful sounds of fan favourites like “Left Hand Free”, enthusiastically following further calls to clap and sing along.
In the final moments of their performance, lead vocalist and guitarist Joe Newman crumpled up and threw the setlist into the crowd. He stood next to Unger-Hamilton and threw his hands proudly into the air as the venue lights rose and the speakers immediately blasted into Simple Minds. This moment, as the crowd let out their final cheers, had the live performance energy I’d been waiting for.
This change in the final songs of the show was satisfying, but didn’t totally compensate for the overall lack of vigour and rawness that live music is capable of. But then, this careful choreographing and measured performance was vital to create the mesmerising combination of visuals and music. Maybe it was a little too perfect for my liking, but their show was an admittedly spectacular and one-of-a-kind experience – albeit one that left my eyes aching more than my feet.