It would have been hard to dislike alt-J’s sold-out performance at Chastain Park Amphitheater on April 4. The four clean-cut guys walked onstage, plugged in and pumped out a pulsing rendition of “Hunger of the Pine” that made everything still. There was no stalling, no dazzling effects, no Miley Cyrus foam fingers.
The British band, which released its debut album An Awesome Wave only three years ago, played a show that rocked suburban Atlanta and sent the crowd swaying. Alt-J makes music that entrances its listeners — maybe because of its unique weirdness — but more likely because it’s vaguely familiar, like a dream or a distant memory.
That Saturday night, the band flashed in and out of blue strobe lights, and started in on their second song, “Fitzpleasure” with a “tra-la-la” that was fortified by thousands of voices from the audience. It was a cool Atlanta evening, but the music-synchronous pulse of the crowd created warmth and an atmosphere which intensified the performance. “Hello friends,” keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton said before sliding into “Something Good.” That was the extent of the band’s interaction with the sea of people in front of them, but it reflected the guys’ understated nature rather than a sense of disinterest.
The sound of the band live is nearly as clean as it is on their record. Even the band’s most upbeat member, lead vocalist Joe Newman, never raised his voice. They transitioned into the whimsical “Dissolve Me” from the laid back “Left Hand Free” without strain. Alt-J’s tracks work together that way.
What captured the crowd in a way that all we all hope for when being scammed by Ticketmaster was the delivery of“Matilda,” a singable track that Newman performed intimately. Without any kind of cue from the band, everyone at the venue sang out the anthemic line “This is from Matilda.” All audience participation that night happened organically.
The band edged the intensity of their performance down at the hour mark with “Bloodflood,” followed by “Bloodflood pt. II” with Unger-Hamilton’s prominent piano notes, but picked it back up with the recent “Every Other Freckle.” This track, which was released as a single last year, deserves the attention it’s been getting; it ranked first on the UK Indie Chart in 2014, and 13th on US Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs. It’s complexity and layers are unnoticed in the wake of its visceral physicality. After a set that was much longer than it felt, the band escaped the stage and returned for an encore, performing a cover of Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day.” It was followed by the deep “Nara” and “Leaving Nara,” both emblematic of alt-J’s dreamy, wavelike sound.
At the last song’s completion, a chant rang out through the amphitheater. Everybody and the person next to them yelled “Breezeblocks” in unison in hope of hearing the band’s consistently most played track. As if alt-J were actually listening and making the decision right then and there, the guys finished their set with the wild, building explosion of a song that translated to live performance as well as it does from a laptop. The song’s refrain of “Please don’t go, please don’t go, I love you so, I love you so” mimicked the audience’s exact feeling as the performance ended.
At the completion of “Breezeblocks,” no one threw their body at the stage, or begged the guys to stay in desperation, but this didn’t mean the night fell short of being a success. Alt-J’s performance at Chastain Park Amphitheater reaffirmed the band’s ability to please the crowd witha style that is distinctly their own.
These guys aren’t Radiohead and they aren’t The xx. Alt-J brings a new kind of strangeness to the alternative rock genre, the kind that can change music history in an unassuming way. The band doesn’t have a large enough collection of music to change the world yet, but give it a year or two and their lyrics and refrains will have the globe bouncing. As traffic built up at the exit to the venue a clashing of alt-J tracks could be heard from hundreds of car speakers, audience members unwilling to let go to the very end.
– Ellie Kahn, Staff Writer