Much to the ire of fans at this year’s Outside Lands festival, British indie powerhouses Gorillaz and alt-J were scheduled simultaneously for headlining sets at opposite ends of the festival grounds. While Gorillaz brought out a series of featured guests in its four-encore set, alt-J stuck to the basics: three guys on stage and their odd, eclectic brand of music.
Alt-J, fresh off the release of this year’s Relaxer, somehow managed to increase the number of light elements onstage from its previous tour, sending ripples of anticipation through the crowd as the stage crew set up. “This is going to be a religious experience,” insisted one man to his uninitiated friends.
He wasn’t wrong. Alt-J’s music is distinctly strange, floating by under frontman Joe Newman’s deliberately tonally-affected vocals. But if anyone deserves a raise, it’s the coordinator of the band’s visuals — every single LED element, every flash of light and color, every pulsing swirl of spotlight was linked to a beat in the music. Despite the artists’ relative stasis onstage, the motion of the lights had the effect of pulling the audience into the group’s video game-esque world. One can only imagine what those in the crowd tripping on various substances were experiencing.
Of course, the light show could only succeed on the strength of the songs underneath. While alt-J has proven the live presence of its first two albums, cuts off of Relaxer ran the live-show gauntlet before an expectant crowd. Thankfully, as is usually the case for synth-heavy alt-rock bands, even those songs that didn’t make a huge impression on record came to life when performed. “Deadcrush” produced a wave of gyrating dancing throughout the audience, feeling perfectly at home in the set which still rested heavily on fan favorites from the band’s debut album An Awesome Wave and sophomore effort This Is All Yours.
Alt-J now has a depth of discography that allowed it to suffuse its set with popular hits instead of relying on two or three well placed fan favorites to tide the crowd over. “Taro,” “Something Good,” “Every Other Freckle” and “Left Hand Free” all slid by with practiced confidence, as the crowd seamlessly transitioned from headbanging to hip-swaying. Even “Interlude I” — used as a filler — found the crowd singing along in unison to the band’s harmonies.
What became clear as the band launched into its closer “Breezeblocks” is the way in which alt-J has grown into its image. The group’s performing style hasn’t changed much over the last few years — the three members set themselves up in a line across the very front of the stage, with Gus Unger-Hamilton trapped behind his keyboards and drummer Thom Sonny Green obviously unable to move. Newman keeps up the stillness, playing with casual, gentle sways that lacked the typical theatrics endemic to festivals.
And yet, something has changed since the band’s first circuits touring for An Awesome Wave. Where before the trio’s stillness felt shy or even awkward, now the group exudes a confidence more fitting of the Arctic Monkeys — badassery, but without even trying. Paired with the incredible visual experience, the band left fans shellshocked as the house lights rose up and broke the spell at the end of the set.
“I told you,” the man from before murmured to his friends, as if he himself had just seen the band for the first time through new eyes. For those who chose to spend their Friday evening away from the crowd chaos of the Land’s End main stage, it was surely a highlight of the day.