Concert Review

Alt-J Gives a Robotic Performance at Comerica Theatre

There is a scene in Almost Famous in which the lead singer of the fictional band Stillwater, played by Billy Crudup, talks about how with music, you “remember the mistakes.” For those who attended the alt-J performance at Comerica Theatre, the few mistakes that were made by the Leeds quartet is what people will look back on. Skilled as the band is, it worked very hard to sound exactly like its albums.

For the first 20 minutes of the show, the restless crowd stood up just asking to be blown away by the folktronica pioneers, who took home the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2012 for their album An Awesome Wave. The band members, dressed in black shirts, stood practically motionless against a collage of colorful graphics flashing behind them. The group seemed stiff, almost robotic.

Then Joe Newman, whose unique, almost undecipherable singing is one of the reasons that alt-J is such a polarizing act, said three words that temporarily broke the tension: “I fucked up.” He forgot a lyric and threw the rest of the band’s harmonies off-track. It was the equivalent of someone spilling water on their cell phone — there is some freaking out, but you quickly grab a paper towel and dry it off.

Everything went back to normal.
The need for such skill and accuracy with a band like alt-J is understandable. It built its reputation on creating singles that have a foundation of complex rhythms and harmonies. Precision is a priority. If something is off, the whole thing collapses.

The drawback to maintaining this aesthetic is that it’s hard to show that you are having fun. The one rule the band forgot when deciding to create its expensive light show was to move and play with the medium. Alt-J, touring in support of This Is All Yours, just stood onstage stiff as a board, only moving when a note needed to be played or a drum needed to be hit.

There were moments when the crowd was asked to sing along or clap hands, but these were few and far between. The audience became increasingly aware that they were watching the equivalent of a laser light show at the planetarium led by four animatronic robot musicians playing cool experimental tunes. It was the indie rock equivalent of “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland.

Halfway through alt-J’s 75-minute set, the audience, which had been standing on its feet the whole time, began to sit down out, perhaps because of fatigue, or maybe frustration and boredom. Then something amazing happened: People stopped filming the concert on their phones and used their mobile devices for texting and checking Facebook. The desire to capture the moment collectively went away because there truly was no moment to capture until Newman forgot another lyric. The error caused the crowd to cheer, as it was one of the few signs of emotion coming from the stage. No one even seemed to acknowledge that the band played a cover of Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day.”

When Newman started to whistle during “Warm Foothills,” you could almost see him manage a smile. Finally, he and the band played the lovely folk number with some emotion and intimacy. When alt-J closed with “Breezeblocks,” the crowd seemed too worn down to even acknowledge the band was playing the group’s biggest single. Except for that one guy in the audience. You know, the one wearing puka shell necklace who dances to everything. He understood the performance on a much higher level than everyone else.

Critic’s Notebook

Last Night: alt-J and San Fermin at Comerica Theatre

The Crowd: Hipsters and NPR listeners

Random Notebook Dump: “The keyboardist, Gus Unger-Hamilton, has a sweet porn star ‘stache and appears to be drinking Merlot. Why isn’t he having any fun?”

Overheard in the Crowd: “And Band of Horses was covering Sade” — the one person who picked up on the Bill Withers cover and had to outdo her friend

Personal Bias: The thing that makes alt-J unique to me is that it works with so many influences: folk, hip-hop, and experimental. The band's albums are so much fun as a result. Seeing the group play those discs live wasn’t. As skilled as alt-J is, it didn’t feel like much effort was made to make the show engaging.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil