Review: Alt-J

The music was great, but FRANCESCA HILL thinks the atmosphere left a lot to be desired.

Alt-J Cambridge Corn Exchange

Cambridge Corn Exchange, Tues 14th May

This week’s gig at the Corn Exchange was an important one for Alt-J. Cambridge-dwellers before their recent phenomenal success, they got a lot of love from the Hills Road sixth form students amassed at the front; keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton announced that he’d studied there himself, and was only too happy to return to the music venue he frequented as a teen.

Unfortunately, that was about the only audience interaction we got all night. It’s lucky that Alt-J’s music speaks for itself, because they are incapable (or otherwise unwilling) to speak up for it. If you love their Mercury Award-winning album, An Awesome Wave, then you probably would have loved this concert; they started with the intro and played it right through to the end. Mixing it up here turned out to be playing Hand-Made, the final track on the album, before Taro, the penultimate one. Those crazy kids.

Album / live performance – spot the difference.

Chat was minimal, but as expected, the sound was great: the beautiful, complex music that have recently won them most of the country’s hearts. Aware at any early stage of the evening that the crowd was singing along far less than normal at concerts, it occurred to me that lines like “Scattered truths, bewildered beast boohoos, we have our weight: ten thousand ladybirds” aren’t easily-singable for even the most die-hard fans.

Their backdrop and lighting were both fantastic; beautiful marbled paintings in the style of the album cover (did I mention how closely they like to stick to the album?) and some brilliantly dancing lights that were neither over- nor understated.

I’ll admit at this point that occasional deviations were made from the rigid album structure. A couple of non-album tracks fell somewhat flat, and raised questions about Alt-J’s potential to be yet another one-hit-album Mercury-winning wonder. A cover of College’s brilliant A Real Hero from the Drive soundtrack was ambitious but simply didn’t work in a cappella, losing all the zingy pathos of the original. An unexpected hit of the night came in the form of a cover of Kylie’s Slow, which surprised me so much in the context that I spent a good half of the song furrowing my brow and trying to identify the source.

For the interested among you, support acts were Florida-based Hundred Waters and Kiwi group Princess Chelsea, both of which went down fine without exactly causing a stampede into the hall from the bar. They provided a semi-interesting soundtrack to the real show, which came in the form of watching the teenage hoards jostling for position at the front with the kind of enthusiastic/aggressive mood-swings that come only from hormonal imbalance. Few things make you feel as old as realising those days are firmly behind you.

All in all, it was a good night, but not as good as a night as I hoped. The songs that sound so amazing on my speakers at home sound little different live, and Alt-J’s failure to connect with the crowd meant that at times everything fell a little flat – at times you could even hear people talking. These guys may be extremely talented musicians, but they have no presence.