Boy, did we underestimate these lads. Even in the weeks following their 2012 Mercury Prize win for best British album of the year, alt-J would never have been so bold as to suggest that they might one day headline arenas.
The rest of us would have laughed. We had a little chuckle, in fact, when the band announced earlier this year that they would be stopping off at that big old shed along the docklands after summer. Keep the art rockers from Leeds in clubs and theatres, no?
We are, after all, talking about a group of players who sometimes trade under a symbol (Prince could barely get away with that one, fellas). Yep, one of those bands (it’s the delta sign, in case you were wondering – we’ll stick to ‘alt-J’, thanks).
The point is, two years ago, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton (what a name) and friends played the Academy. Now, they’re on the Premier League of stages. Ambitious isn’t in it.
“This place is f***ing huge,” nods an observant Gus. Indeed it is. Decent sized-crowd, too, all of them here to see alt-J’s red-light flashing, Kraftwerk-styled, stand-in-a-line noise show. It’s, er, a lot better than it sounds.
Is there another band out there that could pull off a twitchy Miley Cyrus sample in their opening song, the haunting Hunger of the Pine?
All ethereal cries, keyboard sirens and fidgety percussion, alt-J don’t rock out – they forge atmospheres. Yes, that statement is sort of pretentious, but bloody hell, it’s true.
Lead vocalist Joe Newman’s awkward enunciations make it difficult to understand just what this band is banging on about. Sounds eerie and melodic, all the same.
They’re a terribly nice bunch of lads – you half expect them to apologise for leading sing-songs and creating dance floors, but through a hypnotic blend of (spectacular) visual trickery and harmonic vocal work, the boys reel us in and keep us hooked. Presence in stillness – even Kings of Leon couldn’t do that.
And so we have an intense serving of the old (the scuzzy Fitzpleasure was made for arenas), the new (second album, This is All Yours, was released last week – The Gospel of John Hurt knocks us out) and the bizarre (that cheeky makeover of Bill Withers’ Lovely Day shouldn’t work, but it sure does sound sweet from where we’re standing).
Sometimes, it’s a bit much. One of their songs has a sequel. The politeness will, eventually, grate. Experimental rock bands these days have timelines. But for now, those magnificent shared vocals and lavish, electronically-fused hooks are more than enough to keep us interested. And we’ll take this lot over The xx any day. “You guys smashed it,” says Gus. Likewise, mate.
AN old man singing a young man’s songs can be a disconcerting sight – a reminder that, no matter how high you soar, in the end time will have its sordid way with you. But James Taylor was never youthful exactly: always a little withered before his years, now officially of bus pass vintage he remains the perfect conduit for tunes of quiet despair and grim wonderment.