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Review Thu Nov 06 2014

The Riviera had a Lovely Day with Alt-J

altj1.jpgI didn't give Δ, pronounced alt-J, a fair chance when they released their initial EP and subsequent album An Awesome Wave. It was more than likely a combination of something just not clicking with the songs I had heard. Maybe it was the convolution of their name, the Mac key sequence to produce the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet that indicates change in mathematical equations. Whatever the reason, it wasn't until my sister Kayla insisted that they were indeed a good band and that I should take a second listen. My resistance to the band would ultimately not make sense considering how strange and inventive they turned out to be.

Since then I've been an advocate of Joe Newman's weird warbling voice and the band's complex compositions. Δ came to the Riviera this past weekend and reaffirmed my sister' assertions of quality. They played and 18-song set, touching upon everything one would hope for, and it was breathtaking.

Lovelife was the opener and they arrived on the stage to sounds of operatic singing. My uneducated guess is that it was something of Giacomo Puccini, which is a very confidant way to start off a collection of electropop songs. However, it seemed to pay off. Lovelife's sound is so rhythmically infectious that I certainly don't think lead singer had to implore the crowd to dance with him. Their songs are poppy and fun on the surface, with a quite a few lyrics of love loss peppered underneath. "Stateless" makes the best out of feeling down, while "Exhale" goes from furious anger toward a friend before reforming to forgiveness. Their most intriguing song, "Your New Beloved," came closer to the end of their set. The distorted vocals on this song about an ex mesh so well with the moodier instrumentals. They left the stage with the incredibly appropriate "Dying to Start Again," which I think a fair amount of the crowd would not have minded.

A bright red strip of lights began flash across the floor of the Riviera's stage, pulsating to the opening tones of "Hunger of the Pines." Δ came out slowly with a determined confidence. Gus Unger-Hamilton, Joe Newman, Cameron Knight stood in a row as the strobes grew stronger, while Thom Green's white face paint and darkened eyes gave him a ghoulish look on this centered Day of the Dead. The brilliant red lights climbed up the display, escalating further and further until they consumed the stage. "Hunger of the Pines" was slower, sexier even, delving into this really dark atmosphere, lush with unrestrained emotion. The Miley Cyrus sample was jagged and torn as if the rest of the song was attempting to overtake it, but the solid decree "I'm a female rebel" forbade it. All minimalism of the original was revealed to be much more heavily layered with rhythms, reflecting the nosier "Fitzpleasure" that followed.

The night was filled with fully realized connections like that. Both sections of "Bloodflood" were played together, closing the two year gap between their releases. Hearing "Dissolve Me" and the Léon: The Professional-inspired "Matilda" together was like seeing mismatched puzzle pieces somehow connecting perfectly. One of my favorite songs of theirs is the vocally driven interlude, "❦ (Ripe & Ruin)," which was performed to a nearly silent room. The stuttered consonants and elongated vowels of the tender song reverberated against the audience, filling them with the OCD rumination before making way for "Tessellate," a song I've come to appreciate more and more.

The experimentation and significant change of the songs' structures were littered around the set. "Left Hand Free", which feels like the most unlikely song that alt-J would produce, was given new life live. The band owned it, infusing a rawer energy with sharper guitars and drums that crashed down heavily throughout the song. Nearly every song they played from their latest album This is All Yours had a deeper sensation than on the record. The latter half of the Alien-inspired "The Gospel of John Hurt" grew to an absolutely anthemic high as Newman moaned "Coming out of the woods," rattling the venue to its core. Rays of red burst out, imitating the chest bursting song until a few lone lights shone down on them to finish of the song.

At the start of their encore, I felt a twinge of song missing. Immediately I knew which one it was, but didn't want to think about it and jinx the possibility away. Their four song encore began with the hidden track "Lovely Day," a Bill Withers cover like no other. As a Withers fan, the inclusion of the song in the set put a huge smile on my face. Such a loving and fun R&B song made weird and mesmerizing by Δ with a chorus that feels like sigh of relief under Newman's uncanny cadence. They followed that performance with the one-two punch of "Nara" and "Leaving Nara," catapulting Newman's wavering croon above the gentle songs.

I told everyone who asked me about the show the following morning that it was a great and fun concert, but something didn't click, coming from my initial hesitance with the band. I was, of course, lying. It was a kind act from me, trying to soften the blow of missing the opportunity to hear such phenomenal songs live. Sorry, sweetie, I couldn't bear gloating about the show just yet. alt-J ended their first night at the Riviera with a dazzle of pinks, greens, and blues that ultimately settled on a stark white light to end "Breezeblocks," easily their most recognizable song. The crowd simultaneously sang along with every line and screamed in utter adoration, cementing Δ's show spot as one of the best shows of the year.

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Matt / November 6, 2014 2:27 PM

Can't wait to see them in Indy later this month!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
Concord Music Hall
Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
Double Door
Elbo Room
Empty Bottle
Green Mill
The Hideout
Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
Logan Square Auditorium
Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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