Sunday, 21 September 2014

Alt-J @o2 Apollo Manchester 20/9/14

Former Mercury Prize winners play Manchester

It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since Alt J won the prestigious Mercury prize which overnight meant that the Leeds band were taken from relative obscurity to widespread acclaim which included soundtracking tv commercials.

With a packed summer of festivals there hasn’t been too much respite for the guys, rather than take a break they have been hard at work on their new album ‘ This is all Yours’ of which some of the fruits we are about to hear tonight.

Most of the reviews have spoken of a more expansive direction for the band so its of some interest to me to see how this new direction translates to a live setting.

Starting with a new track ‘Hunger of the Pine’ and the brilliant 'Fitzpleasure' its clear that the bands strengths are there for all to see from the start with their complex production strange but alluring vocals from frontman Joe Newman and infectious riffs.  It seems like they have ramped up their percussion for their live sound courtesy of Thom Green and the close harmonies are a joy to behold and this induces the first big singalong of the night.

There is a bit of a change to the bands lineup as it was reported that their bassist Gwil Sainsbury left the band earlier this year but Cameron Knight is a more than fitting replacement for him and displays his accomplished bass playing throughout the set and Gus-unger Hamilton puts on a noteperfect performance on Keys and backing vocals.

The band continue their blistering start with newbie ‘left hand free’ which is a change of tack towards a bluesy soul direction owes more than a debt to the black keys. This is followed by the delicate tones of ‘Matilda’ the closest thing the band have to a love song if there was one about a hurricane.

Things briefly take a more restrained tone as the band play 'bloodflood2' from their new album. This seems to come too early in the set and isn’t in tandem with their blistering start. It seems the crowd are not too interested in this tempo change in the set.  This leads into a new song ‘out of the woods’ which showcases their pastoral folky direction as the crowd again seem unsure of how to react. This is quickly remedied by two double slightly erotic tracks in 'tessellate' with its ‘Bite chunks out of me’ and 'Every Little Freckle' which is a slow building delight with its subtle arrangements accompanied by vocal gymnastics and keyboard motifs. Its slightly disappointing that the band don’t have a female choir for the choral parts, as was seen on Jools the other night- an opportunity missed maybe.

'Taro' is a key track not because of its brilliant invention from straightforward pop structure to Bollywood string section but it also shows off the bands personality and adds a bit of human feel to their performance which is sadly lacking throughout. Frontman Joe speaks for the first time of an error he made at the start of the track and this shows that the band are not robots just playing everything from the records.

This 'human' connection seems to be an on-going issue throughout their 75 minutes performance. Despite the odd pleasantries in between songs there is no banter and not too much difference to listening to audio of the band and seeing the band live. The band mainly stay in the same positions not using much of the stage which seems a little one dimensional as far as performances go.

The band encore consists of the one song that made people sit up and listen in the first place ‘ Breezeblocks’ which whips the crowd into a frenzy again and as I leave the venue I can hear the refrains of ‘Please come back I love you so’ from the gig goers so its clear that they enjoyed the evening.

What is clear from tonight's performance is that the band make songs for mind and body and are undeniably talented and they can obviously captivate an audience with their material but they could be brilliant if only they injected more personality and energy into their live performance. It’s not that they are a rubbish band but if they added those two crucial elements to their live setting they could be a major force to be reckoned with.

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