Alt-J at Varsity Theater, 4/1/13
With Hundred Waters
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
April 1, 2013
After Alt-J's convincing Minneapolis debut at a crowded Triple Rock back in September, the hotly-tipped U.K. quartet raised the stakes a bit with their Twin Cities return at a sold-out Varsity Theater on Monday night. And while much of the adoring crowd was transfixed by the Mercury Prize-winning group's 55-minute set -- and will likely follow their leap to First Avenue for two already sold-out shows this September -- the diaphanous, beat-driven songs ultimately proved to be distant and decidedly one-note.
Alt-J's polished, textured tracks easily filled the room but they ultimately failed to resonate, instead coming across as rather hollow and lifeless, due in part to the young band's utter lack of stage presence. The mostly incoherent vocals of lead singer Joe Newman left much of Alt-J's numbers without any recognizable soul or emotional center to attach to, and their unvaried numbers drifted by pleasantly enough throughout the brief set, but failed to take hold in the end.
The band took to the stage victoriously with their arms raised in celebration -- and why wouldn't they, since Minneapolis clearly is enamored with them. And the strong start of the set certainly built on that warm reception, as the moody, electronic strains of "Intro" found the band covered in shadows before Thom Green's beats kicked in, revealing a stage lit-up by elegant Edison bulbs. The show started with the same recognizable trio of songs that kicks-off their award-winning debut album, An Awesome Wave, with "Interlude I (Ripe & Ruin)" blending smoothly into their hit single, "Tessellate," which became a crowd singalong over the top of their churning rhythms and mercurial electronic flourishes.
A smoldering, keyboard-laden take on "Something Good," followed quickly, after a brief word of thanks from keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton (the only member of the quartet who did any talking during the set). But a wayward, slight rendition of "Buffalo," which was recently used in the Oscar nominated Silver Linings Playbook, got the set off track just a bit, before a dynamic take on "Dissolve Me" propelled things forward again.
The crowd then did their best to sing along to the nonsensical ramblings of Newman on their smash hit, "Fitzpleasure," while also flailing about awkwardly, looking to make any connection they could with the band's biggest song. And that's part of what proves to be elusive and exasperating about Alt-J -- even their hits lack a definitive essence or embraceable heart that listeners can eventually make their own. Their music, while technically sound and mildly inventive, ultimately lacks a soul.
While it was admirable of Alt-J to try something new (and not on their recent setlists) by covering the Kylie Minogue/Dr. Dre mash-up, "Slow Dre," the song, which could have been turned into a club anthem, instead came out flat and tired. The Mumford-like strum of "Matilda" again got the crowd singing along, but the rendition was delivered without any passion or spontaneity, as the band appeared to just be going through the motions at this point.
The Knife-like percussion of "Bloodflood" gave the set a much-needed spark, but that edge was quickly lost on a meandering, tiresome rendition of "Ms." "Breezeblocks" then brought the brisk main set to an uneven end, with Newman's desperate plea of "Please don't go, I love you so," ultimately ringing hollow, as those fiery words were conveyed without the requisite urgency or raw sentiment that will make those emotions believable or identifiable to anyone in the crowd.
After a brief break, Newman and Unger-Hamilton returned to the stage alone, and delivered stripped-down but insipid takes on "Hand Made" and a cover of the College track "A Real Hero," which was made famous by the Drive soundtrack. Thankfully, the set ended with a dynamic shot as the rest of the band returned to the stage, as a propulsive, stirring version of "Taro" really brought the night to a rousing finish. Sadly, that type of untamed energy and inventiveness was missing through much of the earlier moments of the set, as Alt-J failed to make a lasting connection with the crowd through songs that lack the heart to truly make them special.
Personal Bias: While my money was on Field Music for this year's Mercury Prize, after Alt-J won I dove into their album and was mildly intrigued. After this performance, my interest has faded.
The Crowd: A packed house, filled with a surprising number of dudes who were trying desperately to sing along.
Overheard In The Crowd: Two disparate reactions to Matilda from people no less than five feet apart: "This is my favorite song from the album." "Fuck this song."
Random Notebook Dump: It was back-to-back Mercury Prize-nominated artists for the Varsity Theater, who hosted London songstress Lianne La Havas the night before.
Interlude I (Ripe & Ruin)
Interlude II (Guitar)
A Real Hero (College cover)(Encore)
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