Alt-j brought their Relaxer tour for the second of two sold-out shows to the Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater on Thursday night. They arrived on-stage on a rather impressive physical display that literally secluded each band member into their own room of light, separated by totemic poles of dancing LEDs. Guitarist and singer Joe Newman was positioned center stage, with keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton to his right and drummer Thom Green stage-left.
As the stage came to life, Newman picked the opening guitar flourishes of “3WW” from their album “Relaxer.” Although the tour is supporting this latest recording, this was the first of only four tunes from that album. alt-J instead chose to fill their set with crowd favorites from their breakthrough first album with a liberal dose of tunes from their second. This was probably a wise move as its a well-known fact that fans tune out and visit the bar or bathroom when confronted with new and unfamiliar songs. While far from a disappointment, Relaxer has not come close to echoing the success of the band’s earlier albums.
Having sprung from a dorm room where the band created their signature unique sound and finding immediate success without years of on-the-road seasoning, alt-J never seemed comfortable as performers. Band members remained still and in place, barely moving except to play their instrument. There was also very little crowd interaction except for a few occasional sentences from Unger-Hamilton. Instead, they choose to let their music carry the load. The band is smart enough, however, to realize the limitations of this strategy in keeping an audience’s attention for a ninety-minute show. The light show was nothing short of amazing, with swirling colors that followed the sonic movement of each song and staccato bursts that punctuated the high points. The presentation was the perfect complement to the aural feast.
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Opening the show was Philadelphia duo Marian Hill. Supported by saxophonist/bassist Steve Davit, singer Samantha Gongol and keyboardist Jeremy Lloyd weaved an electronic tapestry that exhibited more than a little R&B influence. Gongol strutted and danced across the length of the stage in an entertaining and theatrical display, with her smooth vocals providing the melodic glue between Lloyd’s catchy rhythmic beats and loops. While the crowd seemed to be enjoying the set, they didn’t come to life until the distinctive syncopated groove of the group’s song “Down” sunk in. Many concert-goers who were out on the terrace rushed back inside to see the performance. The song was featured on an Apple iPhone/AirPod commercial and it was obvious from the crowd reaction that many did not know it was a Marian Hill track.