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alt-j at Bristol's O2 Academy: 'It felt like being part of a church sermon'

By Louisa Streeting

Not many bands who perform at one of the most acclaimed arenas in the United States then find themselves at Bristol’s O2 Academy just a mere few weeks later.

alt-J are fresh from their tour across the pond which saw them play New York's Madison Square Garden at the end of April, a 20,000 person strong venue. Just two weeks later the three-piece indie-rock outfit is playing to a heaving audience of 1,600 in Bristol to embark on a nearly sold-out UK tour to promote their fourth record The Dream.

The mood appears to be set as they entered to The Chemical Brother's anthemic club track 'Hey Boy, Hey Girl', which receives a nods from the audience.

Read more: 16-hour rave returns to Bristol with thousands due to attend

Singer Joe Newman, drummer Thom Sonny Green and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton assume their positions neatly side by side on an elevated stage that towers over the audience. Despite their assertive entrance music, the band manages to retain a reserved stage presence - sort of the archetypal image of three friends playing music together from someone's bedroom.

This is not far off from how they started back in 2007 when they met at Leeds University - composing songs on Garage Band from their student halls - but the production value of their live shows is in another realm these days. The carefully curated visual effects on the stage backdrop paired with glittering lights silhouette the three men for most of the show.

alt-j at Bristol's O2 Academy (Louisa Streeting/BristolLive)

After a couple of slip-ups in the immensely sensual lyrics on 'Every Other Freckle' (who knows what Joe sings half of the time, anyway), they flow neatly from album to album, showcasing how their songwriting hasn't faltered since their inception. Fans of RELAXER may be disappointed to learn the album does not get much of a look in, though.

This month marks ten years since the release of their hugely triumphant breakthrough debut An Awesome Wave and their setlist reflects this, playing the album almost in its entirety. Joe and Gus both show off their faultless harmonies in the acapella track 'Ripe and Ruin' leading on to crowd favourite 'Tesselate', which is what many people seem to have been waiting for.

One of the stand out moments for me was a performance of the band’s ode to the late actor from the science fiction blockbuster Alien. ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’ is sometimes overlooked in their canon of work, building from a hypnotic, repetitive rhythm then curling into a booming out of body experience, both bass-heavy and carried by Joe's angelic falsetto.

The band embrace as they thank the crowd (Louisa Streeting/BristolLive)

As the band departs to ‘Fitzpleasure’ ahead of the encore, the backdrop immediately illuminates with the familiar blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. “I said it last night and I’ll say it again - f**k Putin,” Gus yells to a chorus of alt-J fans, who spring to life at the mere mention of the Russian leader.

At times it felt like being part of a church sermon. Not only due to the band's celestial vocals, but the crowd stood almost completely motionless throughout their 20-song set (although, I will admit this tends to be the state of play at the alt-j gigs I have been to over the years). They were rewarded with the singalongs from their debut record such as 'Matilda' and 'Breezeblocks' that did manage to jolt most of them back into life, fortunately.

Keyboardist Gus recalls the first time the band played Bristol on board Thekla over a decade ago near the beginning of their career to fewer than 100 people. It feels like this could be one of the last times they could play a venue of this size in our city - with larger scale venues Bristol Beacon and Bristol Arena en route to completion within the next two years. And after the success of their fourth studio album back in February, it feels like alt-j aren't going anywhere just yet.

alt-j's The Dream is our now released by Infectious Music and the Canvasback Music division of Atlantic Records

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