March 1: It was cold and wet, the wind and rain lashed your face as you stood in a parking lot at HUDA grounds in Gurgaon. A few hundred other people braved the elements to attend a concert featuring two British acts, drum and bass outfit Rudimental, and alt-J, an alt-rock band whose idiosyncratic lyrics could easily be stuffed inside fortune cookies at a hip, new-age restaurant. But in the mud and slush, you heard snatches of their songs, somebody occasionally took a puff of their soggy cigarette and yelled “Let’s tessellate.” The concert was a wash out and the sky looked gloomy.
May 21: The show is on, minus Rudimental. It’s at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Sports Stadium, so there’s no alcohol, no cigarettes, no singing aloud in groups — several rounds of frisking will remind you that this isn’t the rock concert you thought you bought tickets for. But hey, it’s air-conditioned and in May, that probably matters more than letting your hair down.
As promised, alt-J begin at 8. Fingers form triangles above heads in the crowd when Joe Newman (lead vocals, guitar), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboard, vocals), Thom Green (drums) and Cameron Knight (bassist; Gwil Sainsbury left the band last year) took the stage.
They begin with Hunger of the Pine, the first single from their sophomore album, This is All Yours. The sound is much better than expected — the haunting intro fills up the venue. It’s an excellent beginning and throughout the concert, Newman’s vocals are easy to decipher without checking Google. What a joy it is to actually be able to listen to him and sing along. Green’s drumming is on point, which amazes anybody who knows that he’s nearly 80 per cent deaf because of a genetic disorder. The same can’t be said for Unger-Hamilton and Newman’s harmonies — the weakest link in an otherwise consistent performance. One couldn’t help feeling that the casualty of the evening was the bass. This tends to happen with bands that create a multi-layered soundscape, which is difficult to translate into a live performance. Still, alt-J do a remarkable job.
While their first album, An Awesome Wave, is decidedly more popular than the second one, alt-J have carefully curated a song list for the show that delivers hits such as Matilda, Tessellate, Taro, as well as lesser-known tracks like The Gospel of John Hurt and Nara weaved in between Every Other Freckle and Left Hand Free. If there was a sublime moment in last evening’s show, it was during Warm Foothills, one of their quieter, acoustic fare. It’s a very unlike alt-J song in some ways — a folksy track without metaphysical themes, it’s shorn of embellishment and Newman’s solo whistling takes you to the English countryside where it’s green till the eye can see. The spell is soon broken as they end the show with a crowd-favourite, Breezeblocks.
Standing in a straight line, alt-J are not one to interact much with the audience. While it is a relief from international live acts that shout out “I love you, Delhi” at regular intervals, it is just a wee bit disconcerting — the stage lights and the background media showed greater engagement. The alt-J experience lasted 75 minutes and ended as soon as the organisers began playing Dev.D’s Emotional Atyachar.