alt-J in 3arena, Dublin on 27th September 2014
The largely young and hip crowd were loud and sometimes garish. The females wore brimmed hats and the males wore facial hair. ’80s throwback garb was rampant, and several attendants couldn’t harness their own cool at times, refusing to bow down to ‘the Man’ by lighting up cigarettes, et al., inside the venue.
It was alt-J, Saturday the 28th of September.
Pretension hung in the air. Perhaps that’s not surprising seeing that the indie darlings have catapulted themselves into a higher stratosphere and their gig is taking place in the 14,000 capacity 3arena rather than the Olympia Theatre’s 1,240, which they played two years ago.
Too large a leap, surely…
It was with an assured swagger that they turned out to have a strangely successful big sound in such a large venue. This is especially impressive seeing that the drummer has no cymbals whatsoever, and that they often have no bass player or second guitarist. Their instrumentation comes across as especially sparse during the live performance, something which is gleaned by production by their records.
The drums were especially dry, almost industrial at times, and there were a handful of small mistakes early on, which may have been caused by his unorthodox style of playing 16th beats.
The pretension did come fast and hard too, with a new addition to the ‘spelling out our lyrics for you’ category. ‘An Awesome Wave’s “C-O-double M-O-N” can now be joined by both “N-E-O, O-M-G, gee whiz” and “Do you know where you go | You’re headed on the strings | For the | E-X-T-I-N-C-T”
All the same, the more the four-piece rallied through their 75-minute set the more the crowd was reminded just how many top quality songs were on their debut. ‘Dissolve Me‘ was especially impassioned. The set list was a little top heavy and they chose for some reason to spend all of their ‘new singles’ cards within the first half, which left a palpable sag at the mid-point.
They also added to their repertoire of originals a cover of Bill Withers’ Lovely Day, which was smoothed to fit their cold, sleek sound and would have been convincing if all joy hadn’t been sucked clean out of it. Imagine Dido singing Pharrell’s Happy, and you have an idea of its lack of just that.
What was surprising was – with an idea of the grandiose notions they might have of themselves – how blown away they seemed by the venue and turnout, appreciating it as their biggest gig yet, which is “fucking amazing”.
Unsurprisingly, their biggest hit Breezeblocks ended the set and it became clear that its outro is still the best thing that alt-J have done, with everyone getting involved and singing the lyrics out the door; “Please don’t go, I’ll eat you whole. I love you so, I love you so.”
It was always going to be a big ask to look for a second ‘An Awesome Wave’. We mightn’t get that calibre again – ‘This Is All Yours’ sure doesn’t seem to be – but they sure have a sound all their own and they sure are effective.
It brings to mind a quote from the equally-talented and almost equally-pretentious James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem in which he stands up for pretension, if it heeds results.
“I actually want to write a treatise in defence of pretension… Pretension can lead to other things. You know, the first time I read Gravity’s Rainbow, I did so because I thought it would make me seem cool. That was my original motivation. But now I’ve read it six times, and I find it hilarious and great and I understand it.”
The ends justify the means. And in that vein it makes it a little easier to smile and sing that fantastic refrain with my fellow fans.