Alt-J Live – Intellectual Oddballs Incite Fervour And Ecstasy With Quiet, Calm Approach

Central, Manchester
November 29, 2015

The last time The Horrors graced Manchester Central, they were supporting Alex Turner and co, and found themselves pelted with detritus, including coins that had been set on fire, plastic cutlery and phones – prompting Turner to admonish his own fans as “dickheads” mid-gig. Bassist Rhys Webb nursed a blackeye for the remaining tour after being assaulted with a safety belt. Eight years on, frontman Faris Badwan – warming up for Alt-J – comments on that fateful night. “You’re all more polite than the Arctic Monkeys fans,” adding wryly, “I’m not saying that’s a good thing, mind.”

When they first emerged, you might have thought Alt-J – with their delta symbol name, cluttered fidgety sound and oblique lyrics that you might need Letts’ Notes to decipher – were too weird to end up playing arena shows. But here the Leeds band are, on the opening night of their latest UK tour, playing to a hangar-like space containing burger stalls.

It’s a cliche, but their success is firmly substance over style. Not overburdened with charisma, the trio – bolstered by touring bassist Cameron Knight – are all dressed unassumingly in black, keep the chit-chat to a bare minimum, and remain static behind their instruments. There’s a disparity between the stock-still group and the audience, who – by the second track ‘Every Other Freckle’ – have vaulted onto each others’ shoulders, and are howling its lyrical chat-up line “Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet” with the lascivious frenzy of a sexually-desperate Take Me Out contestant.

Subsumed in smoke, Alt-J rise to the challenge of the bigger venue by cloaking themselves in lasers and lights which swirl like Catherine wheels, synchronized to keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton’s ’90s house stabs on ‘Something Good’, or bathing them in a menacing glow as television screens flicker distorted patterns during the brooding ‘Bloodflood’. Having played the likes of Madison Square Garden and the London O2 Arena, they’ve found a way of ensuring the puzzle-like intricacies of their songs haven’t been sacrificed for scale. Yet early material, such as a raved-up Teutonic ‘Tessellate’, bare their teeth live, even down to frontman Joe Newman’s monk-in-mourning falsetto, which sounds deeper and more primal in the flesh. During a mathletic workout through ‘Dissolve Me’ hands are outstretched towards Newman as if he’s a preacher commanding religious fervour.

“Okay” says Newman, introducing ‘Matilda’ in a rare moment of interaction, “so you can help me sing this,” before adding politely… “If you like”. Despite his otherworldly info-dump lyrics (which means to the casual listener he might as well be hollering away in Dothraki), he marshals a singalong that suddenly feels campfire intimate. With a looping, hypnotic keyboard line, they transform Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’ – a bonus cover from 2014’s ‘This Is All Yours’ – from soulful into sorrowful, with a lamenting vocal that sounds like Thom Yorke with a hangover. The disembodied vocal of Miley Cyrus heralds ‘Hunger Of The Pine’, before the crowd go batshit to ‘Breezeblocks’. Politeness be damned.

Alt-J played:
‘Intro’
‘Every Other Freckle’
‘Something Good’
‘Left Hand Free’
‘Bloodflood’
‘Bloodflood Pt 2’
‘Dissolve Me’
‘Matilda’
‘(The Ripe And Ruin)’
‘Tessellate’
‘The Gospel Of John Hurt’
‘Lovely Day’
‘Nara’
‘Leaving Nara’
‘Fitzpleasure’
‘Hunger Of The Pine’
‘Warm Foothills’
‘Taro’
‘Breezeblocks’