Concert Reviews

Alt-J Relied on a Dazzling Light Show to Bring South Side Ballroom to Life

With San Fermin
South Side Ballroom, Dallas
Monday, October 5, 2015

The appeal of alt-J's music has always seemed a little mystifying. They may have won the Mercury Prize with their very first album, but their take on vocal harmonies and metering is a little odd, and their lack of a groove is a little boring. Interesting, but not necessarily compelling. Last year's sophomore album, This Is All Yours, had much of the same, un-engaging effect. Yet they continue to sell out shows around the country. So what's all the fuss about?

Last night, alt-J came back to Dallas just under a year after their last visit, playing a sold-out show at South Side Ballroom. This was one show that may have been better suited to, say, The Bomb Factory, but as it turned out it was packed to the back of the room with the kind of youngish, well-mannered audience that mirrors the band and its music. From the moment the band took the stage at 9 p.m. sharp and opened with the "Intro" to This Is All Yours, the audience was fully in their pocket — “their” referring to three charisma-challenged guys, a drummer working hard to propel the music forward, and one hell of a visual show.
As the band kicked into "Every Little Freckle," the second song of their 80-minute set, a hive of flat screens and spots moved hydraulically beyond the front of the stage and over the audience. The effect was stunning, and compensated for the lack of action onstage. The musicianship was fine; keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton stood out particularly among the guys standing. The harmonies between singer and guitarist Joe Newman and the keyboardist were nearly as good as on the records. But the obtuse lyrics were a bit muddy and hard to connect with.

There were no danceable beats, but the audience seemed genuinely thrilled by the performance regardless. Highlights of the set in terms of crowd response were "Matilda," with Newman leading the crowd in a chant, and "The Gospel of John Hurt," where the band did actually hit a groove. The visual crescendo of that song was truly stunning.

But other bands that deliver such overwhelming visuals with their show wring more juice out of their effects. Radiohead’s interspersing of feeds from low-resolution cameras on Thom Yorke’s mike stand is a good example. That technique also helps connect the performer with the folks in the back of the room. alt-J hardly moved, remaining in shadow (despite the enormous wattage of the lighting) for much of the show.
The band wrapped up the set with a rollicking "Fitzpleasure," and after a short break returned for a four-song encore. Few in the audience took the opportunity to leave before the encore. The end came with the predictable "Breezeblocks," and with it a satisfied audience exited into the cool early October evening.

Opening the show was Brooklyn’s San Fermin. In contrast to alt-J, each of their songs was performed with enthusiasm. Referring to their music as “baroque pop,” the horn players, violin and guitarists worked hard — maybe too hard — to convey excitement with their performance. And it worked: By the time they left the stage they had won a hard-fought battle for appreciation from a crowd that was clearly there for the headliners.