Photo by Carsten Windhorst.
Holding their Exeter gig in the covered cow shed which is more commonly used for the Devon County Show was characteristically out of left field for the French poet quoting, Miley Cyrus sampling band who have made a name for being one of the most quirky and unpredictable acts on the music scene. Barring the smell of cowpats and the hour wait for a taxi following the gig, the venue itself was surprisingly well equipped with a capacity of 7500 and lighting effects which surely couldn’t have been equalled by the University Great Hall.
Taking to the stage to a rapturous crowd after a long build up, Alt-J opened with the intro from This Is All Yours – immediately impressive were the band’s tight vocal harmonies. Running straight into Every Other Freckle, frontman Joe Newman had the crowd chanting along to all the lyrics - especially the weird ones like “turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet”. It is this randomness on which Alt-j thrive; after the brilliantly melancholic trip hop beat of Something Good, they unleashed the true ace in their pack: Left Hand Free. I somewhat lost respect for the band when they distanced themselves from the track, implying that they’d written it as a joke in 20 minutes. It is a song better than most artists could write in an entire career. Anyway, Left Hand Free sounded sensational live, and provided a rare opportunity for the crowd to let loose in a concert that was at times somewhat static.
Alt-j needed to regain the audience’s waning attention after the fairly dreary Blood Flood pts i & ii (saved by some amazing red lighting effects). They did this well with two fan favourites from debut album An Awesome Wave: Dissolve Me and Matilda. The latter provided one of the standout moments from the concert when the crowd were left by Newman to sing the entire intro. However the crowd response to second album tracks Gospel of John Hurt and Nara show how fans have equally embraced both very different bodies of work. Nara in particular, built beautifully from a quiet opening to a bassy twinkling climax of Hallelujah with some delicate percussion work from Thom Green.
The band re-emerged triumphantly for the encore with the pulsating beat of Hunger of the Pine, only to be slightly marred by Newman’s vocals which were sounding quite ropey at this stage (seventeen songs into a twenty track set). Warm Foothills proved that his whistling abilities remained unaffected, and whilst this song was sonically amazing, visually it was even more so with some breath-taking lighting effects depicting flying birds. A perfect rendition of Taro (who knew that that jangly noise came from a guitar?!) was followed up by what everyone was now audibly waiting for: Alt-j’s most famous song, Breezeblocks.
Alt-J’s performance was technically brilliant: the band were incredibly tight with their vocal harmonies, instrumentation and even the stunning lighting which was a crucial aspect of the performance as it brought a new dimension to what would have otherwise been less memorable moments. As an introspective, intelligent band, the atmosphere for an Alt-j concert is everything, and they have clearly worked hard to perfect this part of their live shows. What was perhaps slightly lacking was more interaction with the crowd, and it was very unconvincing when Newman said how pleased he was to be here. In a farm in rural Devon, after your sell-out world tour? Pull the other one mate. Having said this, Alt-j have an enormous network of superfans for whom the band simply turning up and performing their tracks perfectly is enough. I would say that overall I felt the same way, but if I saw them live again I would hope to see some evidence that the band is no longer content to rest on their laurels in this aspect.