It was my second time seeing Alt-J and my second time being out to Deer Lake Park for a show. It was a gorgeous day, making it the perfect weather for a show in the park. A bunch of us had made our way into Burnaby and into the ant-farm of a line-up to get into the venue itself. Once we’d found a spot to call home, San Fermin had already started their set.
I’d never heard San Fermin, let alone listened to any of their music, so I only had a vague idea of what they might sound like, based on what I’d assume a band touring with Alt-J would sound like. I’d say that they certainly fell into the realm of what I was thinking but poppier. They played a decent length set with songs that featured both of the band’s male and female singers, together and apart. They’re a pretty big band with 8 members but I’m really glad they’re rolling with that many people because the sax and trumpet players bring a lot to the sound of the band. Aside from the bigger range of the band’s instrumentation, the other thing I really liked was how much they played around with time signatures. Given their sound, which I find to be quite pop and mainstream for the most part, it was cool to hear them switch things up in the middle of a song while maintaining that generally likeable pop sound. All that being said, the band didn’t really hook me because even though they played a tight set (other than one of the songs earlier on in the set where the drummer sounded like he was quite cutting it on some of the fills), and all the members of the band very obviously great at the respective roles, the voices of both of the singers didn’t hook me. Once again, great at what they were doing but neither Charlene Kaye, nor Allen Tate had a voice that made me want to hear more. It’s all about preferences and while overall, San Fermin may not really be my thing, they still played a great set and are worth a listen if you’re at all interested in the Baroque Pop genre.
As Alt-J took the stage, the screens on stage fired up with the lights and smoke and the band started to take off with ‘Something Good’ (An Awesome Wave). Having previously seen them when they were in Vancouver, I already knew that they had a killer light-show to go with their set but for anyone who might read this and hasn’t seen them, I feel I have to stress the fact that it’s a huge part of their show and really adds to each song. I also feel I have to stress that it can be seizure-inducing at times. After the first song ended, Joe Newman said that his voice wasn’t 100% that night and on ‘Left Hand Free’ (This Is All Yours), it showed a bit. I didn’t mind a bit though because at least he brought it up and they still played and Newman killed it to the best of his ability that night. More of This Is All Yours came with ‘Every Other Freckle’, followed by ‘Bloodflood’ and ‘Bloodflood, Pt. 2’. I liked that they kept the Bloodfloods together so we could hear them flow from one into the next; the pounding bass drum and heavy snare of the former followed by the song-splitting piano line in the latter.
Then there was a flip back An Awesome Wave with the island sound of ‘Dissolve Me’, my thoughts of prison stabbings that come with ‘Matilda’, and the a cappella harmonies of ‘❦ [The Ripe & Ruin]’. One of the singles, ‘Tessellate’ from An Awesome Wave was the pre-cursor to ‘The Gospel of John Hurt’ (This Is All Yours), which had some very seizure-y lights flashing, and a cover of Bill Withers ‘Lovely Day’, which is hidden on the final track of This Is All Yours. The second two parter of the night, ‘Nara’ and ‘Leaving Nara’ (This Is All Yours), had Newman forgetting a lyric or two in the former (with him letting out a “whoops” to the crowd) and had me getting flashes of Radiohead with the latter. The set ended with the very crowd-popular ‘Fitzpleasure’ (An Awesome Wave) and its “tra-la-la,”s. That heavy downswing of fuzzy bass is pretty intoxicating in the atmosphere that the crowd provides.
And with that, the band did their standard encore procedure and came back with ‘Hunger Of The Pine’, which is easily my favourite song off of This Is All Yours and was very deserving of its place as the first single from the album. Unfortunately, Newman’s voice came off really strained for the song; I think he was nearing his limit and with the pitch he sings in, the song can’t be easy to do normally, let alone when you’ve been singing for at least an hour with a messed up voice. ‘Warm Foothills’ (This Is All Yours) seemed to be easier on Newman’s voice, and whoever was whistling killed it (unless it was just from a recording, in which case that’s cheating). The song really does give the feeling of the warm foothills it’s named for though, which is always impressive for a song to evoke something that strongly. The encore was closed with ‘Taro’ and ‘Breezeblocks’; both from An Awesome Wave and both having a dark side through lyrics or music video. ‘Breezeblocks’ became the clear choice for the final song of the night as there was no way they wouldn’t play it but by the time they got to it, Newman definitely sounded like he was ready to be done for the night. He was sounding really strained again and was probably pushing his limit for the evening. Alt-J still managed to make it through an 18 song set for a crowd that was nothing but appreciative for their spirit and commitment to play on through the pain instead of just cancelling the first night of their tour. I have tons of respect for their decision and was really happy with what I heard that night, given the circumstances.
Just like the last time I saw them, Alt-J put on a great show sound and light-wise and the crowd loved them for it. I really hope that whatever’s affecting Newman’s voice clears up soon because I’d hate for anyone to have a false impression of the bands’ incredible skill and sound when playing live. I’d definitely recommend seeing Alt-J live if you have the chance; it’s more than worth the price.