Alt-J (?) - Festival Hall, Melbourne

Written by Alexander De Petro

Alt-J (?) - Festival Hall, Melbourne

Why do we see live music? What kind of high are we chasing that is alluring enough to make us feel the need go out, on a school night no less, to see four guys play music at the charmless, if nostalgic, Festival Hall?

Performing mostly songs from their Mercury Prize winning debut album An Awesome Wave, ultra-hyped British outfit Alt-J (?) brought their unique, beautiful and somewhat creepy brand of folk-tinged alternative rock to West Melbourne. Their music translates incredibly well live, driven by a heavy use of bass drum under the creative keyboards of Gus Unger-Hamilton and the lilting, broken and utterly inimitable vocals of frontman Joe Newman.

There was a level of anticipation in the crowd that bordered on tension through the two opening acts, locals City Calm Down and Snakadaktal, with fans geared up and almost at breaking point even before the iconic first notes of Intro rang out through Festival Hall. Alt-J (?) then proceeded to supply a polished, yet totally authentic, performance of the entirety of their debut album An Awesome Wave, along with a few other choice tracks.

Alt-J (?) are no more “the new Radiohead” than they are the new Lady Gaga, the new KISS or the new Liberace: they’re doing their own thing and doing it well. Their folky-bluesy-rocky and always eccentric sound is constantly engaging, and Newman’s vocals are absolutely enthralling at times. The band has a sixth sense for timing and pacing, with subtle changes made to each track to really bring the audience in to the performance, and the expertly crafted set-list perfectly balanced the heavier songs and the lighter songs, the slower and the faster. The lyrics, sometimes dense and obscure, sometimes gentle and touching, were belted out in parts by the audience, and Newman had good rapport with the crowd.

Some tracks, such as Intro, Tessellate and Fitzpleasure, were conveyed with more bite and verve than you might imagine from listening to the album, guitarist Gwil Sainsbury clearly a very talented young axeman. A highlight of the efficient 55-minute set was their ‘Like a Version’ mash up/cover of Kylie Minogue’s Slow with Dr Dre’s Dr Dre mashup, delivered without the faintest taste of bubblegum (though dripping with irony, of course). One of the only other songs not from An Awesome Wave was the excellent down-tempo ditty Buffalo, which featured on the soundtrack to the film Silver Linings Playbook.

Finishing the main set with a towering version of Breezeblocks, an obvious fan favourite, the encore included a stripped back version of Hand-Made off the ? EP, and an a cappella version of College and Electric Youth’s A Real Hero, from the Drive soundtrack, which bled seamlessly into the only song yet to be played from An Awesome Wave.

Five thousand bodies swaying and chanting in time to the final refrains of Taro provided the answer to the questions posed at the start of this review. We brave the elements – physical, temporal and social – for these brief moments of transcendence, when it’s not about who you are or where you’re going, it’s just about the music, man.

(Photo by Aleksandar Kostadinoski)


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