Alt-J at the Santa Barbara Bowl | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

It’s the first show of the season at the Santa Barbara Bowl, and it’s a doubleheader, or more if you include openers Cherry Glazerr, and you should. The fog and chill did nothing to stop fans from turning out for two of the most popular and radio-friendly alternative acts of the last decade, Portugal. The Man (PTM) and alt-J. Portugal was up first, and they played a fiery, shambolic set that included “Live in the Moment,” “Got It All,” their latest single, “What, Me Worry?” and, of course, their all-time greatest hit, “Feel It Still.” Interspersed among the originals, we heard snippets of Nirvana and Beatles songs, along with a rousing few choruses from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” PTM has mastered the art of sounding like a jam without losing momentum. Whenever things came closest to falling apart, they pulled back from the edge with a deft solo or a tremendous singalong verse. 

On the other hand, alt-J was all over the place without moving. Each performer stayed within their individual giant metal box, all of them cantilevered off the stage on a techno scaffold. Their vivid light show, projected both behind and in front of them, did the moving around for them. From within these crazy cages, which were reminiscent of a Francis Bacon triptych or possibly something that Gilbert and George might get up to, they unleashed a steady stream of what I can only describe as “prog-pop.” Simmering somewhere between Radiohead Lite and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, they laid on all kinds of hisses, tics, and glitches over what often sounded like folk singing. Barbershop harmonies competed for attention with Joe Newman’s unique troll voice, which is not something one forgets once one has heard it. You have to hand it to alt-J; they follow their star, and there’s no telling where it will lead them. At times, I half expected them to start yodeling like Focus on “Hocus Pocus.”

Fortunately, they have a great catalog of familiar hits to fall back on and a truly killer stage show. Their three-song encore — “Left Hand Free,” “Hard Drive Gold,” and their breakthrough hit, “Breezeblocks” — left everyone sure they had seen the right band. Look out for them next week when the whole circus returns for an encore show on Saturday, April 2.

This edition of ON Culture was originally emailed to subscribers on April 26, 2024. To receive Leslie Dinaberg’s arts newsletter in your inbox on Fridays, sign up at


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