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alt-J at First Direct Arena

7 December 2015
alt-J at First Direct Arena
One of the most anticipated arena gigs in Leeds, alt-J made a kind of victorious ‘homecoming’ to their university town on Sunday night at Leeds First Direct Arena. First Direct formed the Leeds leg of their UK arena tour, and was an ambitious but well executed step up for the band, who have exploded onto the music scene, both mainstream and off kilter in recent times. Support came from Ghostpoet, and record label cousins The Horrors and so the night proved eclectic.

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Ghostpoet kicked off proceedings with a live set that amplified the energy of his music which is fairly mellow in tone, much of which comprised of his new, more guitar led album Shedding Skin, which really plays on his melancholy feel, led by his distinctive deep and almost spoken-word style vocals. The Horrors followed with their own half an hour set, Faris Badwan bejewelled in a very glam-rock sequined sweater as he slunk about the stage. As a fan from their Primary Colours era, I was pleased that their set consisted of a fair few older tracks, including the Baba O’Reilly-esque trills of 'Sea Within A Sea'. I was left a little unsatisfied by the addition of ‘synth scatting’ which peppered what would otherwise be a clean cut, psychedelic gem, and seemed to be added to give keyboardist Tom Furse something more to do. Another shame that was no fault of the band, was the strange sound levels that rendered guitarist Josh Hayward rather silent, which perhaps also accounted for the synth overkill. However, as their sound moves further and further away from the distant Strange House days - an album which they seem to make their own inside joke as Faris promises ‘Count in Fives', a slice of their gothic past, to a crowd oblivious to this quip, before launching into a newer more synth drenched number - it is clear that they have moved on as a band, not quite satisfied as openers for an arena tour, but perhaps past the days of more rebellious gothic sentiment.

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Moving on to alt-J, who first met while at Leeds University, crediting their ‘terrace in Woodhouse’ as a vital element in their conception as a band, before launching into final pre-encore song, and crowd favourite by far, 'Fitzpleasure'. That alt-J were creatively born in Leeds was important to some, (students past and present, whooping at their shared experience) and others less so; namely the slightly younger and older sections of the audience, which made up numbers in equal parts. Regardless, it is obvious alt-J have a kind of universal appeal and understandably so; they flirt with the weird, whether that be lyrically, rhythmically or perhaps the unusual nasal effect of Joe (Newman’s) vocals which sort of chew on his words, while retaining optimum ‘catchiness’. To achieve a level of ‘cool’ while producing ear worms well rinsed by television programmes, films, ads and even a video game, not to mention their Mercury Prize win in 2012, is an impressive feat.

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Their performance at the arena was a confirmation and culmination of this journey, which was aligned with success from the start, kicked off with their aforementioned Mercury Prize for debut album An Awesome Wave. Their set was a nice, punchy mix of songs from both this album and last year’s release This Is All Yours, nicely elevating the songs to arena worthy acoustics without losing the intricacy of certain elements; harmonies, timpani and castanets, and visuals were impressive without being distracting. As the crowd garbled along to the tongue twister lyrics, and almost robotically followed the queues to clap, it is clear that alt-J have their fans in the palm of their hand(s).

Emma is a Freelance Writer for Leeds Living. She has a degree in English literature from the University of Leeds and specialises in writing cultural editorials.
Photography by Mark Wheelwright