Well, the summer concert touring season is starting to pick up in the Pacific North West, and things are grand. Tonight I had the pleasure of attending the sold out Alt-J show at Portland mainstay, the Roseland Theater. This venue has been the go-to place for bands that need a ~1500 capacity venue with solid sound, but it is admittedly low on the atmosphere. As I walked through the crowd, I saw that I had joined an eclectic bunch, to say the least. There were your typical college and grad crowd, quite a few recently grey-haired people who are still ‘with it,’ a few parents with kids, and some girls who just wanted to dance. The only thing they had in common, well let’s just say that Portland Alt-J shows should probably be added to this list, near the top.
The opener for the night was Hundred Waters, who left me with strong impressions, both good and bad. They had just started their set as I arrived, and looked to be a five-piece that was planted firmly between College Art Rock and Indie, with vocals and structure leaning heavily on Bjork. Lead singer Nicole Miglis channelled the Icelandic songstress to great effect while playing the keys, the drumming was spot on, and the guitar and bass noodled artsy riffs together very nicely. The only thing out of place was back-up singer Sam Moss, who harmonized very well with Miglis, although she did not join in as often as I would have liked. Throughout the set she played various percussive instruments (like a wood block, a cymbal, and a shaker) but it all seemed as though she was looking for something to warrant her existence on stage between her pitch perfect back ups. That’s not meant to be a knock on her at all, I’m just saying that if she’s going to be on stage, I expect more: either more singing (seriously, if the band ever reads this, have Moss sing more), or maybe some violin playing, or at least have a keyboard (plugged in or not) in front of the poor girl so she isn’t constantly having to prove her worth on stage.
The song they were playing as I walked in was good, and I could feel a potential for it to grow on me, but the set never really went anywhere from there. During the second song, two members of the band (unfortunately) put down their guitars and started twisting knobs on various “instruments” that took the spirit of the music towards the electronic. This, in and of itself, was fine, but it led to large chunks of time where members of the band seemed to be looking for something to do or were simply sitting down. I won’t spend too much time on this, since their music was by no means an assault on my ears, but I was indeed bothered by these moments of wasted talent mitigated by patches where there was just too much going on. Sorry sister, when you play the flute for literally ten seconds on stage, it’s unnecessary (we already know you are avant-garde folk electro pop, and besides, it was inaudible). The band was at their best when they were all doing something significant and appropriate for the music, and at their worst when one member was doing three things while two were trying to justify being on stage. Their sound was fine, their economics of performance was not. This might have been a rarity for them though, since they got a big crowd reaction throughout the night, and as they left the stage, Migilis had a genuine “awww shucks” personality towards the massive applause.
After Hundred Waters left the stage, the venue really started to pack out. Since I was there by myself, I was privy to a few great conversations going on around me, the best being between a girl in a Boy Scout shirt (high irony, I know) and her friend, that featured the fantastic line: “I used to be really self conscious at shows and cared what everyone thought about me, but now I just DANCE.” Spoiler Alert: And dance she did, but it mostly consisted of a raising of her arms in the air, complimented by some waving when she recognized a song…but I digress. And then, with their instantly recognizable hand gesture thrown in the air, Alt-J took the stage, grabbed their instruments, and launched into a one-two punch combo of ‘Intro’ and ‘(Ripe and Ruin)’ followed quickly by ‘Tessellate.’ The crowd went wild and everyone proceeded with getting their groove on.
I had been very curious to see how primary lead singer Joe Newman’s unique vocals would work in a live setting – they are the sticking point for most people on this band, and they are certainly different from any I have ever heard. Live, they worked incredibly well, and the less-subdued live instrumentation really brought an extra dimension to their music. Harmonizing keyboarist, Gus Unger-Hamilton, provided perfect harmonies over the course of the night, his vocals having a symbiotic relationship with those of Newman. In fact, every member of the band was feeding off of every other member; a rare and fortunate sight to see these days.
As they were headline-touring on their only LP, An Awesome Wave, they played all 13 songs (save one interlude) from the record, ‘Buffallo’ (from the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack), as well as two covers: ‘Slow Dre’ by Kylie Minogue and an all vocal rendition of ‘A Real Hero’ by College. I cannot say enough how perfectly they recreate their sound from the album in a live setting while still having that in-the-room-with-you feel that is far from antiseptic. The only thing that a few of the boys from Leeds need to work on is their stage banter/presence. Newman avoided talking to the crowd for the entirety of the night, instead leaving it to Unger-Hamilton, who did a great job of saying thanks during breaks and cracking a few jokes, but he was also the most statuesque player I have ever seen. He stood bolt upright the whole time, only moving to play the keys and returning to the mic to sing. The drummer gets a pass, because drummers do, and guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury moved around quite a bit, but the two main guys just stood a bit too still for the whole performance. Maybe it’s just not that big of a deal to some, but when I am feeling the groove, I like to see that the band is as well. And the audience played their role, so you would think the band would have been feeding off of it a bit more. It just might not be their thing and that’s okay, and besides, they’ve been on tour for quite a while and all bands are allowed an off night, especially when they are really getting the most important thing very right, which is of course the musicianship.
The musical side of things was nailed perfectly, which is obviously far more important. Every song was appropriately groovy, entrancing the audience right from the get-go. They closed the set with ‘Breezeblocks,’ said thanks, and left the stage. Before long, Newman and Unger-Hamilton were back to play ‘Hand-Made’ and the aforementioned College cover before the rest of the band joined them to play ‘Taro’ as an end to the night. It was a very fun show, aside from the dancing girl in front of me, but I can hardly blame the lads for making college girls want to shake their booties. Isn’t that why most bands start in the first place?