Alt-J & Ghostpoet @ KOKO, London 15/2/12
February 16, 2012 by Tshepo Mokoena
When Alt-J take to Koko’s stage in Camden, there’s an excitable buzz in the air. Admittedly, it’s most likely for headlining MC Ghostpoet, but that doesn’t stop the band from stepping right out into the spotlight and launching into their set. It’s one of lilting harmonies, piercing guitar lines and the kind of nervous energy that gets better over time.
They open with a slow dynamic build, Thom Green thundering out a steady pulse on the drums while Gwil Sainsbury’s guitar picks out a jaunty melody line. It all sounds a bit ‘atmospheric 101′ until the warm synths wash in, courtesy of Gus Unger-Hamilton, but only when Joe Newman takes to the mic and unleashes that voice of his do they reveal their unique touch. He sounds like a cross between a banshee with laryngitis and Sigur Rós’ Jónsi. With laryngitis. In any case, the weird and slightly prickly texture of his voice is intriguing and has fans raising their triangle hand signs as they launch into the second track.
The triangle symbol, of course, comes from their name: Alt-J is the command to type out a triangle or delta sign on a Mac and makes them the kind of band you’d automatically want to dismiss for that very choice. They’re worth a listen though, as Newman and Unger-Hamilton’s harmonies on ‘Tessellate’ prove. It opens like an old folk song sampled by the Eagles and covered by Yeasayer circa 2007, all a capella harmonies and a rollicking melody line.
They show off their pop sensibilities in ‘Breezeblocks’, though of all of the songs played it sounds like it needs a bass player most. Their set-up of drums, vocals, two guitars and a keyboard-synth tends to drift too far into a higher, tinny register and doesn’t demonstrate the grit they could offer. Crowd-pleaser ‘Matilda’ goes down well though, with a spot of fanboy-band interaction warming them up and breaking out (relatively rare) smiles on Newman and Sainbury’s faces. It sounds tight and well-rehearsed and leads well into the highlight of the set: ‘Fitzpleasure’.
Here they really show their potential when using a bass-heavy synth line, and hopefully will incorporate more of this material in future releases. Overall their set shows promise but so far isn’t quite of a truly captivating quality.
Once Ghostpoet appears on stage, he pulls out all the stops. He throws down gut-turning bass samples beneath three-piece string and brass sections while growling his way through each track in his trademark style. Intermittently he wows the crowd by bringing out BBC Sound of 2012 nominee Lianne La Havas, vocalist and Mark Ronson collaborator Tawiah and Katy B for guest spots on three different tracks: ‘Survive It’, Us Against Whatever’ and single ‘Cash & Carry Me Home (respectively).
The rest of his set pays testament to the pwoer of expert musicianship, excellent songwriting and a knack for performance. By the end of the night the room practically implodes on itself in the wake of the Katy B appearance, and sweat sticks to most of us as we leave the standing pit. A successful night all round.