October 20, 2014
"It's been two-and-a-half years since we played our first gig in L.A. at Bardot," alt-J keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton noted in the band's sold-out headlining performance at the Greek Theatre on Monday night. It's clearly been a successful recent run for the band.
But as the three piece (with one touring member, treated on this night like an equal part of the core) demonstrated across 75 minutes of deep groves and limber, often unintelligible vocals, there isn't really much sense to be made of the British group's rise to success.
When "Left Hand Free," one of three advance singles from their sophomore album This Is All Yours, appeared early in their Greek set, scattered dancers could be spotted around the sharply dressed, mostly late-twenties crowd. But most attendees remained firmly still, whether standing or sitting.
The band has all but disavowed this song, virtually admitting it was made as a label-requested single. The other highlighted songs from their newest effort, "Hunger of the Pine" (which features a Miley Cyrus sample of all things) and standout "Every Other Freckle," also didn't strike as "songs the crowd came to hear."
No, the Greek was filled on the back of their debut, the Mercury Prize-winning An Awesome Wave. Though not a huge commercial success in the States (it was in the U.K.), all five of its singles played Monday night to a roaring, appreciative audience. It's hard to say the older stuff is better than the newer stuff; it is all pretty second-gear, intellectual rock music, technically sound but emotional void. But the old material is familiar, and that was what the fans thirsted for on this evening.
The most interesting moments of the night didn't really need the audience's approval. "Warm Foothills" found frontman Joe Newman finger picking his electric guitar as effortlessly as he breathed the cool night air, floating through the band's take on American frontier music, finding beauty in a rare moment that didn't rely on percussionist Thom Green.
Green, incidentally, is without a doubt the most talented member of the band. He sits at the front of the stage behind a cymbal-less kit, in line with his bandmates, and is captivating to watch, playing his sticks on his leg to keep time with the music's many stops and starts.
See also: More photos from the alt-J show
Encore starter "Lovely Day" is a Bill Withers cover that appears as a secret song on their new album, and was the only moment that saw the band playing as a three piece. While it wasn't like the chemistry on stage changed, it was at least a nod to their commitment to each other, the solid center that doesn't need a replacement for Gwil Sainsbury, who left the band at the beginning of the year.
With another local date at the Fox Theater in Pomona on tap for tonight, it doesn't take a genius to realize alt-J are, at least as a live draw, a pretty massive success at the moment. But aside from a great lighting tech, a greater drummer, and technically sound musicianship, why they are beloved still remains a mystery after seeing them in person.
Set list below
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Hunger of the Pine
Left Hand Free
Bloodflood Pt. 2
? (Ripe & Ruin)
Every Other Freckle
The Gospel of John Hurt
Lovely Day (Bill Withers cover)
See also: Our photo gallery of the alt-J show