By Rita Anderson – RIFF Magazine
SAN FRANCISCO — Electronic soul and folk band Alt-J took a quick break from two weekends of Coachella to make its way to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Wednesday.
Drummer Thom Green, keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton and singer-guitarist Joe Newman each stood inside a stall-like formation, with synced lights casting shadows and building patterns in multiple dimensions on stage. On “Tessellate,” one of Alt-J’s early hits, the steady beat of Green’s drums was timed with the changing lights moving across the screen, while on another track, the lights created the illusion of water droplets bouncing on a speaker in time with the note changes in the bass line.
In contrast, the band’s physical performance was not nearly as animated as the lighting, consisting mostly of calls for audience participation. The band’s drawn-out, folky sound, with Newman’s creaky vocals layered on top of the band’s blend of acoustic electronica, moved at a leisurely pace; never in a hurry.
“It’s been a while,” Newman nonchalantly said to the crowd as Alt-J began to play “In Cold Blood.” Newman was not a man of many words, so when he did engage in banter, such as asking fans to sing along during “Matilda,” the conversation stood out. The tune, another of the band’s earlier material, was tightly controlled, with no missed notes, extra notes, or cut corners.
Fans chanted along to the the line “I’m a female rebel” throughout “Hunger of the Pine.” The beautiful refrain blended nicely with the trio’s harmony, instrumentation and percusion.
When Alt-J’s main set came to an expected, though abrupt, end the crowd roared in a frenzy for the encore.
They dutifully obliged, playing one of only a handful of tunes their latest album, 2017’s Relaxer: the uniquely structured “3WW,” a song that is both boldly strange and quintessentially Alt-J.
“We’re sad it’s over… or is it?” keyboardist Unger-Hamilton taunted as Alt-J started their final song of the night, “Breezeblocks.” The call-and-response refrain from that song, “Please don’t go/ I love you so,” epitomized this night.
The Neighbourhood opened the show by playing a few of its better-known cuts, including the hopelessly romantic “Daddy Issues” and “Scary Love.”
Singer Jesse Rutherford, ia dynamic on-stage performer, morphed from reserved to jubilant over the course of a few songs. By the end of the set, Rutherford was leaping from speaker to speaker, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
“We’re about to rock; do you guys like rock and roll?” Rutherford asked fans at one point. But oddly, the group proceeded to play “Warm,” which was decidedly not rock and roll. The band wrapped its set with their most popular songs, “Sweater Weather” and “R.I.P. 2 My Youth.”