Live review: alt-J at The O2 Arena, London

Triangles most certainly are my favourite shape after an evening of impressive renditions and mesmerising lights, even if alt-J did miss a trick or two in playing up to the arena’s scale.

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Originally published in The Edge

To mark the 10th anniversary of London’s foremost tent opening its doors to become the world’s busiest music arena, the week-long party they planned featured a suitably dazzling set of names. Having spent the last six years on the way to her 1,000th show in Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace, Céline Dion popped in for two nights in her first dates at the arena (and country) since 2008. To cap an astonishing six months in which he’s single-handedly made a mockery of charts in the streaming age on an almost weekly basis, Ed Sheeran used his third show of the year at the arena to warm up for his closing set at Glastonbury. Though their brace were ultimately postponed until December following Jay Kay undergoing an operation on his back, the final nights were sure to have featured the most extravagant headgear in Jamiroquai’s 15 years of electric funk.

Tasked with opening it all was alt-J, performing for the second time at the arena after opening 2015’s European leg of the This Is All Yours tour with Wolf Alice and Gengahr for company. The show also doubled up as an opportunity to dust off any cobwebs that might have gathered since they last headlined on home soil – not unlike Sheeran, their major Glastonbury slot must have been in mind – but if such a thing were the case then they did a very splendid job of hiding it. A brace from the two-week old RELAXER – opening number ‘3WW’ came drenched fittingly in a smoky, monochromatic haze, meanwhile ‘Deadcrush’ was an opportunity for the centre-stage Joe Newman to demonstrate an exquisite take on rockstar vocal swagger in front of a wall of lightning – sandwiched a trio from An Awesome Wave, which – upon the addition of ‘Intro’ to 2015’s setlist – was just one track and two interludes away from being played in full perhaps better than ever, with the capacity crowd in rich voice even for its more obscure moments.

RELAXER material aside, where the show has most significantly developed since the This Is All Yours era is in its presentation and effects. Yes, the trio – touring bassist Cameron Knight was noticeably absent from the stage throughout – is remarkably stationary, only moving from their positions to shuffle around tall, fountain-like sticks of illumination during pre-encore applause, unless you count Newman’s invitation for the crowd to sing the hook of ‘Matilda.’ However, for this there is good reason: during ‘Dissolve Me,’ vertical lasers shot around each member to the very top of the arena past the equilateral triangle of light bars that tilted and descended at various stages throughout the show. Either side of the stage the displays went unreasonably high, too – for the distinct brand of uneasy yet endearing erotica in ‘Every Other Freckle’ (“I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a bean bag / Turn you inside out to lick you like a crisp packet”), the arena’s back wall was a shower of pink, and the haunting ‘Bloodflood’ was accompanied by evocative reds and purples.

Yet, even if the performance had come sans such grandeur, it would still have been just as impressive. With each song (bar a brief false start on encore track ‘Left Hand Free’ from the otherwise incredibly composed and relaxed Newman) precise, crisp, and intricate, from the arena floor it was little details like the arcs carved by drummer Thom Green’s limbs whilst switching kit components in ‘Dissolve Me’ or the subtle xylophone part played by the comparatively towering Gus Unger-Hamilton that proved most oddly compelling. In general, it was Unger-Hamilton who had the most animated presence, as aside from rich and deliberate duets with Newman on ‘3WW,’ ‘The Ripe & Ruin,’ and ‘Pleader,’ he also took the role of enthusiastic and ever polite crowd communication.

Considering the room of 20,000 it was delivered in, much of the show seemed remarkably intimate and its only real flaw was not becoming just a little bit more musically elaborate as its scale would have permitted (and the band had hinted). ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘Pleader’ in particular each felt deflated as their expansive casts on record were not reflected on stage, and the somewhat muted response to the rurally-minded symphonic passage that is the latter made this more obvious in the brief pause that preceded the encore. That said, when there’s such a rollercoaster of styles and tones as ‘Fitzpleasure’ upon which to close in a red, white, and blue visual extravaganza, it’s impossible to leave without feeling like you’d witnessed something rather special.

Author: Xavier Voigt-Hill

I write words.

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