Photographs by Sean Chin.
Before Toronto’s Kool Haus closes its doors for good at the end of January 2015, England’s Alt-J stopped by the venue for a much anticipated, sold out show. Touring sophomore album This Is All Yours, scalped tickets for the affair were running upwards of $400 to those desperate enough (and with deep enough pockets) to want to see the four-piece. Not bad for a band with only two albums to their name – though admittedly the Kool Haus is a slightly more intimate Toronto venue than their used to playing.
Opening the show was Mikky Ekko, an American artist who got his big break writing and featuring on Rihanna’s hit single “Stay”. The vocalist – performing with a three-piece backing band – made note that it was his first time ever playing a show in Canada. Mixing R&B, electronics, and rock elements made him a nice fit for Alt-J’s own hybrid sound, though there’s room for live development.
On his second song where he asked that you “pretend you care”, the bass beats were almost overpowering his vocals. “Riot” played better with the mix – a rockier offering overall – but fell a bit flat vocally. Ekko has a good range and he’s willing to take risks with his vocal lines, but he doesn’t seem to have a lot of depth to his delivery. This left many of the notes in the shallow end – dropping off almost as soon as they were delivered. This wouldn’t be so big a problem if it weren’t so very noticeable. On the bright side, it’s likely to improve with more touring. With his debut record expected out early next year, there will be plenty of time for that yet.
By the time Alt-J took to the stage at 10:15 pm, anticipation was high in the crowd. A minimalist start between voice and synth for opening track “Hunger of the Pine” saw the stage awash in red lights and fog while horn samples and a Miley Cyrus vocal sample contrasted nicely with the otherwise simple approach. They followed it up with a one-two of strong songs from their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave, tackling “Fitzpleasure” and “Something Good” early on in the set.
“Thank you for crowd-surfing the second song,” said keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton. “I think that’s an Alt-J record.”
For those curious, the absence of original guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbruy wasn’t particularly noticeable, despite leaving the band to much discussion and many fan questions earlier in the year. Replaced by Cameron Knight on stage, the band was just as calculated in their musical output as they were during previous appearances in Toronto.
With Alt-J, the expectation of variety or overt energy isn’t a thing you can really walk in with. Their music is the sort that understandably requires a fair bit of precision on instrumentals and in overall delivery. It’s great music for transit – but it’s not particularly energetic. It can also, inevitably, make for something of a subdued showing (and it’s something they’ve obviously tried to make up for with a fancy, well-planned light show.)
When the band’s precision works, it’s excellent to witness their synchronization and skill at layering fairly complex melodies. When it doesn’t, it’s pretty apparent. “Left Hand Free”, with its big band ambitions, was one such example and didn’t play nearly as cleanly as it should have.
Better was when they let the audience get involved, because it almost seemed to alleviate some of the pressures from their stage presence. Both “Bloodflood” and “Matilda” greatly benefited from audience sing alongs, as did enthusiasm for “Tessellate” and the Bollywood-esque melodic lines on “Taro”, all, respectively, from their 2012 debut.
Squeezing in songs from their new album to bridge the space between the main portion of their set (including main closer and slow builder “The Gospel of John Hurt”) and the start of their encore (the too slow “Lovely Day” and the superior “Leaving Nara”) was proof that much of Alt-J’s new material is already feeling comfortable in the crowd.
Even a slight hitch with final song “Breezeblocks” was endearing, given the band’s otherwise polished, almost robotic demeanour. Messing up early on in the first verse, vocalist Joe Newman gave a simple “Ah, I f*cked it” before restarting the number – a smile creeping on to his face for the duration of the track.
Importantly, Alt-J seem a band thankful for what they’ve got and the warm Toronto audience they tend to receive time and time again. I fear it’d be too much to ask for them to figure out a way to make it all seem a bit more unhinged and off-kilter, though the brief glimpses the crowd got of that on Tuesday night seemed to suggest its value.
There has to be a way to translate the cool and calculated to a live, welcoming strength, surely. Alt-J hasn’t quite figured out how to do this on This Is All Yours, but they’re admittedly inching closer to getting there. For now, though, it’s still much easier to appreciate with a good pair of headphones as you’re on the TTC.