Toward the end of alt-J’s set at The Santa Barbara Bowl this past Tuesday evening, I texted my editor-in-chief:
Me, 9:17 p.m.: It will hurt my heart to give them the bad review they’re earning.
Jacob Lauing, 9:17 p.m.: Then say that.
So I will.
I bought my ticket to see alt-J — one of my favorite bands — months in advance. I marked the date on my calendar and counted down the weeks. Then, suddenly, April 14 arrived.
I made it to the venue slightly behind schedule. While waiting to get through security, I heard the crowd inside explode, closely followed by the familiar opening to “Hunger of the Pine.” My heart sank as I realized I’d likely miss the first couple songs — but then the vocals came in.
Joe Newman’s live attempt at opening lyrics “sleeplessly embracing” couldn’t match the sweet croon I knew so well from the album version. Even from outside, I heard him fall flat enough to bring down the quality of the four-piece band’s overall sound.
Alt-J’s repertoire relies heavily on vocals, so if those were shaky, the whole performance would be. A part of me grew nervous to watch the rest of the show, knowing I’d be obligated afterward to write an honest review and hoping it wouldn’t have to be a harsh one.
By the time I entered the amphitheater, the band had moved on to “Fitzpleasure.” I climbed what felt like miles of stairs to my nosebleed seats, stealing glances at the stage whenever I could. What I saw gripped my attention: beams of lights shot out from the stage, flashing and dancing in intricate choreography.
Before the spectacular light show stood four figures, blackened by the backlighting, standing still as statues while pumping out music that pulsated in my gut and made me want to move. Something didn’t add up. Why were they so stoic?
And the members of alt-J stayed that way for the duration of their concert: stone behind their instruments.
They progressed with “Something Good,” “Left Hand Free” and “Dissolve Me.” Their audience danced and sang each lyric back to them, and while I was no exception, I couldn’t help but cringe as Newman struggled to stay in key.
Two of my favorite alt-J songs, “Every Other Freckle” and “Taro,” played back-to-back. Both pieces open with dense vocal parts on top of light backing instruments, and while the concept plays out beautifully on their albums, Newman couldn’t hang with it live.
I did appreciate how the band employed their album interludes in their live set. “Interlude 1” from An Awesome Wave consists of an a cappella two-part vocal harmony, which the band members executed expertly live. This eased my mind, implying Newman’s tuning issues through the rest of the show had more to do with bad monitors than a lack of skill.
For the duration of “Warm Foothills,” audience members around me seemed to grow bored of the performance, drifting into loud conversation about unrelated topics. This frustrated me. A piece like “Warm Foothills,” while mellow and delicate, deserves a passionate performance to audience with undivided attention — but it had neither.
Alt-J closed out their official set as the crowd cried for an encore.
“They didn’t play ‘Breezeblocks,’” the guy to my left said. “They’ve gotta play ‘Breezeblocks.’”
The band re-entered the stage to roars of excitement, which seemed to revitalize them. They strummed through a few tracks before settling the concert on — you guessed it — “Breezeblocks.”
That was when things changed. You could hear excitement in their performance, and the audience echoed it. I’d go so far as to say “Breezeblocks” was the first shred of life in the whole concert — and, unfortunately, it was the last song.
As they left the stage, the lights came up and the house music came on. It was “California Girls” by Katy Perry, and the whole crowd sang and danced to it as they made their way out of the venue, demonstrating more energy than they had through the whole live show.
I can’t say I was exactly disappointed — part of me had expected the live alt-J experience to fall drastically short of the album experience. And maybe the stage had a bad sound set-up, or maybe the band members were suffering from Post-Coachella Depression (very possible). Nonetheless, I’m sad to report that the best part of their concert was the light show.