Alt-J Proves They're Not Just a Fad at Bayfront Park

Alt-J performing at Bayfront Park Amphitheatre.
Alt-J performing at Bayfront Park Amphitheatre.
Photo by Karli Evans

In computing, the delta sign signifies “a small but noticeable effect.” On their first ever visit to Miami, British indie rock outfit, alt-J, left a marked impression on the audience that was anything but.

The Mercury-award winning group from Leeds, England, brought their collection of soaring songs to a near capacity crowd of 10,000 at Bayfront Park Amphitheatre last night. The band was touring in support of its sophomore album, 2014’s Grammy nominated This Is All Yours. On the whole however, the setlist struck a satisfying balance between past and present.

Stepping out into the Miami steam bath first was San Fermín, a Brooklyn-based baroque-pop collective formed by composer and songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone. The band, named after the festival famous for the running of the bulls in Spain, featured an ensemble cast of musicians and two distinct vocalists. The sweet and salty combo of Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate (who's deep baritone registers as low as Pulp's Jarvis Cocker or The National’s Matt Berninger), were accompanied by piano, violin, and a full brass section. It was the latter that made an immediate impact. The first song had a breakdown that came across like Faith No More as interpreted through sax and trumpet.

Kaye and Tate took turns on the vocal reins, while the rest of San Fermin broke out a series of eclectic sounds, at one point indulging in Bjork-like atmospherics before diving into an aggressive funk number akin to a marching band jamming out to Red Hot Chili Peppers. With twitching, overlapping elements of goth, jazz, and opera fueling their gyrating bodies, each song was a cause for emphatic celebration. It was a minor miracle this brilliant rock orchestra didn't bounce each other right off stage.

By opening with the synth-supported, borderline prog-rock intro track from This Is All Yours, alt-J set a tone that was, from the outset, simultaneously austere and warm. Despite the opaque fog wafting around the four men on stage, the dreamy quality they created wasn’t the hazy-can’t-remember-details kind, but instead a lucid, resonating vision, particularly when they segued into the album’s third single, the pots-n-pans punchiness of “Every Other Freckle.”

Although alt-J are better suited for indoor venues, the Amphitheatre's shape, assisted by downtown’s skyscrapers acting as natural acoustic trampolines ensured that every meaty, quirky note the band played came through (mostly) crystal clear. “Something Good” and “Left Hand Free” followed, further establishing that whether on record or in a live setting, this raucously complex and idiosyncratic group are a cross somewhere between a full-blown symphony and a low-key biker gang, revving their motors.  

San Fermín opened the show.
San Fermín opened the show.
Photo by Karli Evans

Alt-J embodied the title of the band's first LP, An Awesome Wave, as they swept up through the rising seats and lead vocalist Joe Newman’s elastic voice wormed its way in and out of ears leaving little presents of pleasure in its wake. Alt-J and their mix of glorious, majestic hymns powered by jet engine ferocity make for the perfect band – startling, hypnotic, innovative, and ultimately unclassifiable. Both in concert and through headphones, they are heaven and hell joyously, heart achingly crashing into one another — all with a refreshing lack of gimmicks. 

The stage setup was simple: four stationary men, a few high beams, smoky effects, and flickering screens in the background. The reason the visual minimalism works is because of the auditory sparks firing from their instruments and their poetic, often abstract lyrics. Not that their cryptic words stopped the crowd from singing along to a hushed version of “Matilda” or slinking back and forth to the trippy slow jam that is “Tessellate.” 

If there were one criticism to be lobbed at alt-J, it would be that perhaps they don’t banter with the crowd, but honestly, who cares? Outside of a couple sporadic “thank you’s” their songs and accompanying performances are so engaging, additional frills seem unnecessary. Between their shifting moods, layered rhythms, and precise musicianship, alt-J is like a German engineered machine with the passion and soul of a New Age mystic. 

Alt-J closed the show with their hit “Breezeblocks."
Alt-J closed the show with their hit “Breezeblocks."
Photo by Karli Evans

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The quartet closed with the monster “Fitzpleasure” and an encore that included “Hunger of the Pine” (a song that proves only they could sample Miley Cyrus and pull it off in a manner classier than she will ever deserve), and “Breezeblocks,” the track the crowd most desperately, and literally, begged for.

It was during “Breezeblocks” that the audience experienced some unintended levity when it appeared that both Newman and keyboardist/co-vocalist Gus Unger-Hamilton forgot the words to their song. They recovered quickly, with a laugh, and alt-J’s darkest track provided one of the brightest moments of the evening. It was a fitting end to a show featuring a band whose sound regularly and so effortlessly toes the line between both realms. 

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