alt-J / TV on the Radio. Red Rocks. 07.27.15
Every Red Rocks show comes with a ‘Rain or Shine’ disclaimer. The 2015 season has seen its share of rain (and wind, and thunder and lightning, and flooding, and downright frigid temperatures), but it has been lacking in the shine department. All of that changed last night. Rain slickers and beanies were shed in favor of t-shirts and tank tops as the blazing sun punished those who wandered too far from the SUV shadows during their tailgating sessions — and then, only a few hours later, alt-J’s stadium-sized light show reflected off the faces of those who were mouthing every indecipherable word to every indecipherable song. Even the monoliths that held the whole thing together came to life in a myriad of colors that mirrored the ecstasy flowing through the beyond-capacity crowd on a rare summer night.
The open amphitheater did nothing to stave off the flow of sweat as the venue became a gigantic sauna, but the hot, heavy air was absolutely appropriate for what was happening all around us. Looking west from our seats in the 18th row, the view was straight-up Global Dance Festival, but the sounds coming from the east couldn’t have been further from EDM if it were Mumford & Sons on the stage. I don’t know what I was expecting from alt-J, but as they made their way through An Awesome Wave, I realized that I didn’t really know anything about them at all. Not knowing anything about a band isn’t something I’m accustomed too, so I found myself a little confused and a little disoriented at first, but then I found myself extremely moved and extremely impressed with what I was witnessing. The young band from Leeds had their shit together. There was a reason they sold out Red Rocks in record time. They owned the place.
I think I was expecting alt-J to be a gimmicky electronic band (named after a Mac keyboard shortcut) with a ‘marbles in his mouth’ singer, but they ended up being an extremely polished (in a good way) group of musicians who perform a sort of neo-folk music, with real life instruments, on top of a thick layer of synth. I always hated when artists like Caribou and Four Tet were labeled ‘folktronica’ — not only did I think it was a stupid word, but I didn’t believe it truly explained any of the acts it was attributed to — so it was kind of irritating when that word kept flashing in my mind like a neon sign on the fritz while alt-J performed some of their slower, vocal-driven tracks. I was asked a question before the show — “What kind of band is alt-J?” — I really couldn’t answer that question with any authority (umm, indie?), but after seeing them live, I think alt-J can best be described as British Folktronica. As much as I still hate that word, it’s an apt description of what they do.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. The real reason I was at Red Rocks last night was TV on the Radio. I’ve been a fan of the band for over a decade now. (a decade?!) It’s hard to believe almost ten years have passed since I first saw them perform at the Fillmore in San Francisco, but they have. When they closed that show with “Wolf Like Me”, it immediately became one of my most memorable live music experiences. I’ve seen them countless times since then and they have always been amazing. Ogden, Independent, Fox Theatre, Riot Fest – TV on the Radio have always proved themselves to be one of the best live bands performing today. Unfortunately, an opening slot (in broad daylight) on a hot summer night at Red Rocks proved to be their kryptonite.
Opening things with “Young Liars” was the perfect way to uncover the real fans in the crowd, but the instrumental intro (with Adebimpe’s signature whistling) fell flat on the first few rows. The song built to the inevitable powerhouse that it is, but as the set chugged on through a large chunk of Seeds, I couldn’t help but miss all the small, intricate details that make the band so unique. The lack of any kind of lighting also made the first half of their set seem more like a long soundcheck than one of the incredible shows TV on the Radio are known for. “Wolf Like Me” woke everyone up, as was to be expected, with Adebimpe and his left arm in full effect. Throwing alien sign language at the sky like someone possessed, the frontman marked his territory while the engaged audience egged him on — “We’re howling forever…ooo ohh!!!”
“Province” brought things down a notch, which gave everyone a much needed breather after “Wolf Like Me”, but it was unfortunate that they peaked in the middle of the set. Although, it was during that slower selection that some of the necessary details (like the simple chime of a tambourine) finally rang through clear. Bringing things full circle, they closed it out with that other masterpiece from 2003 – “Staring at the Sun”. It came just as the last light of the day disappeared behind us. I was hoping for a longer performance, but with the way things went down, an hour ended up being plenty. As those last words washed over us (“you’re standing in the sea”), there was a glimmer of the great band that I’ve seen shine so many times, but for one reason or another, their light just wasn’t quite as bright last night. That being said, even on an off night, TV on the Radio are still worth seeing. I just envy those who saw them at the Fox on Sunday. I’m sure that set was the more memorable of the two.
My anticipation for alt-J was pretty non-existent, so when they took almost an hour before gracing us with their presence, it just gave me more time to hang out with friends and drink beer. There was a big group of us in attendance and it really wasn’t hard to enjoy a perfect evening at Red Rocks, no matter who was playing. There was a group of people behind us who got after it a little too hard, so it was unfortunate when a fight broke out, but the conflict fizzled away on its own when the perpetrators were shroud in darkness as the lights came up behind the stage. alt-J were lined up like Kraftwerk silhouettes as the initial bleeps and bloops bounced around Joe Newman’s abnormally straight-forward vocals. Then the percussion kicked in and Newman’s voice switched over to his signature sound…something I can understand about as well as most Sigur Rós songs.
“Breezeblock” and “Every Other Freckle” were the extent of my prior knowledge of alt-J’s material, so I can’t give a play-by-play when it comes to tracks performed, but that would defeat the purpose anyway. The set was fluid — flowing seamlessly from one selection into the next. The hardcore fans seemed to all speak the same language, so I was able to glean some of the lyrics from them by utilizing amateur lip reading skills, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that my lyrical ignorance was not going to hinder my enjoyment of the show. The big budget lighting rig was enough to entertain the masses despite the music (the way it highlighted the stoic members of the band, as well as their natural surroundings, was one of the best uses of lighting I’ve ever seen at Red Rocks), but it was the technical prowess and precision of the four men on stage that surprised me the most.
The band never really left their midrange comfort zone (even if Thom Green threatened to bust out a few times), but they filled every square inch of that zone with sound, so it created a palatable tension among the audience that needed to be released with physical movement. They provoked the people to dance, but they did so in a sneaky way. It’s obvious that alt-J built their house on an electronic foundation, but they don’t make dance music. They have more in common with Electric President and Youth Lagoon than they do with anything resembling EDM, but somehow they move people in the same way that Pretty Lights does. I’ve never seen so many people dancing to harmonies either. The harmonization between the members of the band took the ‘folk’ aspect to another level. The twisted vocal style…the live drums and guitar riffs wrapped in glistening beats…the murals painted in light on the rocks…and then harmonies? It shouldn’t have worked. It really shouldn’t have. But it did. In many ways, alt-J are one of the most unique bands I have seen in a long time because of the way they merge those diverse elements into a cohesive sound (and experience).
There were only four guys on the stage. Not one of them moved from their assigned position. Not one of them went off script for a second. I would assume that every alt-J show is exactly like every other alt-J show. They never rocked out. They never freaked out. Yet somehow, they kept me fully engaged throughout their entire set. Sure, it only lasted an hour (with a fifteen minute encore), but it was one seriously entertaining hour. I went to Red Rocks to hang out with a group of friends. I went to see TV on the Radio. alt-J were just a curiosity that I wasn’t even extremely curious about. All of that has changed now. I will always remember last night’s show as the first of the season where we actually experienced some ‘shine’…some from the sun, some the light show, and a lot from a band called alt-J.
TV on the Radio:
Wolf Like Me
Staring at the Sun
Hunger of the Pine
Left Hand Free
Bloodflood Pt. 2
❦ (Ripe & Ruin)
Every Other Freckle
The Gospel of John Hurt