Fresh from playing New York's Madison Square Garden, the Leeds indie band prove their greatness no matter the size of venue (5 May 2022).
Madison Square Garden. It’s the centre of the greatest. It’s where you’ll find the very best in sports and entertainment putting on a show. It’s the pinnacle of where a lot of bands aspire to play just to say they’ve made it.
It’s also very far removed from The Liquid Rooms as you can get, both physically and literally. So it’s unusual you’d have an act headline the New York institute before playing the intimate Edinburgh venue. Then again, alt-J aren’t your usual act.
There’s the name, a nightmare to type grammatically. There’s the sound, a rock-electronic hybrid that If you’re about to sound the lazy comparison klaxon there’s a good chance it’ll follow with a Radiohead song. Both bands share that sound that flirts between genres and takes them to arenas as it does so. They play out the end credits of Marvel films while being idolised like heroes by indie kids. They win awards and the praise of critics while retaining artistic integrity.
They’re so very special you could say. Which is why the Leeds outfit's gig, organised by Assai Records, acted as the perfect springboard to the UK tour they were about to embark on to promote latest album The Dream.
Outside the venue, the only indication musical royalty were in town was the behemoth tour bus parked outside an upmarket chippy (it is Edinburgh after all.) Inside the likes of MGMT and Arctic Monkeys drifted out of the PA at a whisper as the crowd waited patiently on the group to arrive.
Keeping with the disjointed style of their sound, the band all have their unique style. Gus Unger-Hamilton stood in a corner made of keyboards wearing a cardigan and a pair of Converse. Singer and guitarist Joe Newman had the appearance of a well-dressed hippy while to his left Thom Sonny Green resembled a drummer from a grunge act with a low pulled baseball cap and heavily tattooed arms.
The band kicked off with ‘Tessellate’, a track which dates as far back as a 4 track demo Ep the band made. The first thing that hits you about them is Newman’s vocals. They’re a bluesy drawl that sets him and the band apart from many of their contemporaries.
Next it was time to brings things bang up to date with ‘U&ME’ the lead single from The Dream which was as well-received as the older tracks that followed it.
Newman went to start one song before realising it should have been ‘Warm Foothills’ much to the amusement of his bandmates. Thankfully Green, not having as much input into the stripped-back performance as he usually would, remembered what tune it was and he came into devasting effect to elevate the moment.
Green then headed to the side of the stage to leave Newman and Unger-Hamilton to deliver another couple of new tracks before they promised to finish on four louder ones. The crowd were respectfully quiet during ‘Chicago’ and ‘Get Better’ only to burst into thunderous applause as the songs ended.
Then Green returned for the ‘louder’ numbers. It’s easier to forget that there’s a bit of a playful side to alt-J. ‘Dissolve Me’ got the crowd going before ‘Left Hand Free’ AKA the one used at the end of Captain America: Civil War, took things to a different level. All three of the band combined to somehow made it seem as if there was a dozen of them on the cramped stage. It’s one of those songs that has made its way so far into the mainstream many other bands would disown it. Thankfully not alt-J.
‘Hard Drive Gold’, an ode to cryptocurrency swaggered, into view with a cheeky wink and an infectious chorus of “Don’t be afraid to make money, boy!” that got everyone singing.
“This is our first ever gig in Edinburgh,” beamed Unger-Hamilton before he tore open his cardigan as the band ripped into ‘Breezeblock.’ Surely a contender for one of the finest songs of this millennium it was the perfect end to a stunning show.
And with that the band were away. I’ve often wondered that a bigger a band get, the smaller the venue they should play. Take away the light show and the backing band and the squad of singers and the fireworks and you’ll see what an act can really do. New York, you don’t know what you missed.