Since alt-J are a polarizing band (at least among my friends), I went into Thursday’s Roy Wilkins Auditorium concert with a plan to write a list. “The pros and cons of alt-J,” my review’s headline would read, and I’d go on toggling between positives and negatives of the show. There’d be something for every reader.
Well, the best-laid plans. There was one problem with mine: “pros” list kept growing throughout the night, and I couldn’t come up with cons. “Keyboardist sang off-key on ‘Every Other Freckle,’” I wrote in a moment of critical desperation; “guitar solo not groundbreaking.” But eventually, I had to face it: There weren’t any important cons. Everything — from song choice to mood to lighting — was pro.
Alt-J (which is also the Apple keyboard shortcut for delta) are a four-piece English band known for indie-rock grooves “Tessellate,” “Left Hand Free,” and “Hunger of the Pine” (the one with the Miley Cyrus sample). At the Roy, they played all of their hits, sprinkling them among more obscure songs like “The Gospel of John Hurt” and “Warm Foothills.” They also went with a long encore, playing four songs after the (only 55-minute) main set.
Something that struck me during the show: Several artists, from Hozier to Brandi Carlile, have offered to take their audience to church. But alt-J were the first band that I’ve seen do so. Something distinctly spiritual lurked in their sometimes minimalist, sometimes maximalist productions. I couldn’t sing along with most of the lyrics, having never understood them, but that was part of the intrigue. The shuffling tendrils of “Leaving Nara” grew right into my heart, and the vocal harmonies on “Dissolve Me” might as well have been Gregorian chants. Not bad results for a bunch of guys writing about sex.
Aside from the profound mysteries of alt-J, the lighting/production felt most impressive. More than a dozen TV-shaped video panels rose and spun behind the band, flashing different effects to transform an otherwise pedestrian stage set-up. The spotlights were incredibly on point.
Though the band didn’t take many conversation breaks (and when they did, their Leodensian accents swallowed several words), alt-J did seem happy to be at Roy Wilkins. “You guys know how to sing this, right?” asked Joe Newman before “Matilda.” Later, Gus Unger-Hamilton (on keys and vocals) said, “Thanks very much, indeed.”
Notes on the opener: Darkness suits San Fermin, who played 10 songs before alt-J. They're an eight-piece orchestral “baroque pop” band from Brooklyn. The searching, screeching ensemble were at their best when they were most experimental. Male singer Allen Tate’s voice sounded nice (and Matt Berninger-esque), but female vocalist Charlene Kaye stole the show, harmonizing with a saxophone (!) and slaying "The Count."
The crowd: Beer fans, college kids, vinyl fiends, and dating couples (not mutually exclusive).
Overheard in the crowd: “No, not Fernando. It’s, like, San Fernanda,” explained one girl about openers San Fermin. Her friend later smoked a cig in his seat.
Critic’s bias: I like alt-J. Wouldn’t call myself a superfan, but I’ve listened to their discs several times over. I thought highly enough of This Is All Yours to call it a top album of 2014.
Random notebook dump: There actually was one con worth mentioning: 75 minutes is just too short of a set.
Left Hand Free
Every Other Freckle
Bloodflood Pt. II
The Gospel of John Hurt
Lovely Day (Bill Withers cover)
Hunger of the Pine