Photos by Dakota Arsenault
If there’s one thing that you need to understand about alt-J, it’s this: they are storytellers. Lyrically, of course; just look to songs like “Taro” and “Matilda” to see how the trio artfully constructs narratives around real-life tales and existing pop culture pieces. But that same artfulness extends to their sonic experience, which has been critiqued differently album-to-album. Take their debut album, An Awesome Wave; an amalgamation of sunnyside up pop, punctuating, new wave rhythms, and even a shot of bhangra; it’s a bit dizzying, unlike 2014’s This Is All Yours and last year’s Relaxer, which are on the cooler, toned down side of things. But if you shuffle their trilogy together, you’ll end up chasing the tides, and find that it is easy to lose yourself in the intersections of their sounds and constructs.
Absorbing alt-J in this capacity is a bit easier when they perform in an outdoor space like RBC Echo Beach in Toronto. With the sun dipping, a pink sky and golden rays fading into the night, the crowd spread out across the concrete-sand grounds, it was less about the group experience; beneficial for those who want to appreciate songs like opener “Deadcrush” and “Tesselate” at their own pace, but challenging when trying to evoke a reaction out of the sea of audience members. “Fitzpleasure”, one of the more high-energy songs from their catalogue, featured a weak audience clap-a-long, followed by a few notes from lead singer Joe Newman that didn’t quite hit the highs that it does on the record. These are tiny blips for an overall interesting show, and it did get better on both fronts as the night progressed.
With a light display that shifted between warm ambers, colourful rotations, and even the odd background that made you feel like you were in a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors room, alt-J managed to make their sonic stories entrancing. It particularly helped to make songs like “The Gospel of John Hurt” and “Pleader” more poignant. Fortunately, they were also balanced with many favourites from An Awesome Wave, which was performed nearly in its entirety and ultimately drew the audience into the ninety-minute set more. By the time they hit “Left Hand Free”, Southern rock track that seems like an outlier in the band’s catalogue, it was dark outside, and the show fell in line with a more typical concert going experience. But the best thing at an alt-J show is to consciously make an effort to disappear into the pockets of sounds and anecdotes and appreciate the nuances of their work; because like any great story, it’s your interpretation and experience that makes it compelling.