Review: Alt-J @ O2 Academy

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By Josh Templeman, Co-Deputy Music Editor

Performing in Bristol for the first time in over a decade, countless awards and world tours later, Alt-J made their long-anticipated return to the city’s O2 Academy to a sold-out crowd.

Indie experimentalists, Alt-J, are a band that have never failed to cross demographics; from newer fans like teenagers and students alike to thirty-somethings and beyond who have waited years for the band’s return, one couldn’t help but appreciate the group’s ability to generate intergenerational support from all parts of society as the venue gradually began to fill to capacity.

Delayed slightly due to technical issues, in support of the band were Oklahoma-based 5-piece Wilderado. Warm and likeable characters, the group were ecstatic to be playing in Bristol and this was reciprocated by the already bustling audience who returned a sincere applause following the performance of their first song. Disappointingly, I wasn’t thrilled by their performance. Wilderado appeared rigid and motionless, bringing no energy to the crowd that was so prepared to offer it in return. Of course, it’s always difficult as a support act given that the crowd won’t necessarily know your songs, but I’ve known support acts to thrive and offer far less forgettable performances than Wilderado offered that evening. Fortunately, for any fans of the group, they excitedly announced that they’d be returning to Bristol later this year in October.

Emerging onto a raised platform on-stage, the trio assume their position in a side-by-side formation to the backdrop of ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ by The Chemical Brothers – an unexpected, albeit more than welcome anthem. Despite such a bold set-up, the band remain positively demure in their appearance and far more down-to-Earth than you’d expect from a group of their stature. Singer Joe Newman is positioned in the centre, with keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton to his left and drummer Thom Sunny Newman to his right donning an Aphex Twin t-shirt which was appreciated.

Opening with the track ‘Bane’ from their new album The Dream, the performance started in an explosive fashion. Following this, the group flowed effortlessly, track to track from the album, performing favourites such as ‘U&ME’ and ‘Philadelphia’, to a great reception. What was most impressive about the show, however, was the carefully curated visuals displayed behind the band throughout; they accompanied the performance immaculately, dazzling the eyes of the onlooking crowd as the set continued.

Though largely out of Alt-J’s control, I couldn’t help but feel that the gig had its flaws. Motionless and static throughout, you’d have thought that the crowd was at a funeral rather than an Alt-J gig, possessing some of the least energy I’ve ever seen from an audience. I pondered whether this was because most of the tracks the group played were relatively unknown to the crowd due to their recency, yet their stiffness continued into even some of the group’s most popular songs. None of this was helped by the poor mixing and acoustics in the venue; for much of the show, it was difficult to hear Newman’s voice over the instrumentation which disappointingly took away from many of the tracks.

Despite this, the performance really elevated towards its finale. As the group performed ‘Fitzpleasure’, you’d have been shocked to be in the same venue, as all of a sudden, the crowd comes alive to the roar of the guitar. Departing the stage following this, the group then re-emerged onto the stage for their encore to a backdrop of the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag. In a blaze of passion, Newman spiritedly declares “I said it last night and I’ll say it tonight, two words: ‘F**k Putin!”, a sentiment that was echoed by the crowd in the loudest reaction heard all evening. The group quickly followed into fan favourite bangers ‘Left Hand Free’ and ‘Hard Drive Gold’ as the audience are now fully encapsulated in the band’s performance.

As the show comes to an end, the group invite the crowd to join in for the last track. As the opening of ‘Breezeblocks’ plays, it seems this was the moment that the crowd were waiting for all night as they erupt at the very first tone of the group’s most popular song. Commanding the crowd to sing, Newman appears blown away as the full-capacity 1600-person crowd returns the lyrics “please don’t go, please don’t go, I love you so, I love you so”, at the very top of their voices – a true highlight of the evening.

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Though the gig itself was a mixed bag, one certainly can’t deny that Alt-J’s first return to Bristol in over a decade was at least one thing – highly memorable. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another decade until they come back again.

Featured image: Josh Templeman


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