O2 Academy, Newcastle, Wednesday May 8
Triangles may be their favourite shape, but the four members of Alt-J remain endearingly, almost defiantly, square. At one point during tonight’s gig – which, like every other night on this UK tour, is completely sold out – a fan tosses her bra onstage, a development the band regard with sheepish grins and palpable awkwardness. Afterwards, as I wait to be taken backstage to meet them, its owner spies my laminate and asks me to enquire about the return of her undergarment.
“I told Joe he should’ve thrown it back,” groans a visibly embarrassed Gus Unger-Hamilton, “I don’t want anyone to think we’re back here wanking into it.”
Rock-piggery just isn’t Alt-J’s style. Not much is, really, and that’s one of the criticisms the band have faced in the wake of their Mercury triumph: that they’re a little too worthy and self-consciously ‘cerebral’ for their own good. Of course, that argument glosses over just how ridiculous they’re capable of sounding – as on the André 3000-fronting-Tortoise grind of ‘Intro’ – or how charmingly farcical it is to hear a roomful of Geordies attempt to sing along to ‘(Ripe & Ruin)’. People have taken ‘An Awesome Wave’ to their hearts, and now the onus is on Alt-J to make it work on a larger scale than it was ever intended to.
This summer the band will headline the NME/Radio 1 Stage at Reading & Leeds, and judging by bassist Gwil Sainsbury’s spatial awareness, they’re still acclimatising. Lost in thought during ‘Fitzpleasure’, he roams blindly around the stage, backing into frontman Joe Newman and nearly knocking him over, to a chorus of sarcastic cheers. Thankfully, there are more elegant examples of how they are gradually mastering the art of pleasing the crowds. Their reworkings of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Slow’ and College’s ‘A Real Hero’ are made resolutely their own; ‘Matilda’ has developed into a budding anthem.
Admittedly, the lack of new material is disappointing, but while they play nearly every track from their debut LP, you never feel like the bottom of the barrel is being scraped. No Mercury judge can tell you how good ‘An Awesome Wave’ really is.