Text by Nilina Mason-Campbell. Photos by Rachel Milbauer.
As far as I was concerned, British band Alt-J had two strikes against them before performing Monday night at the Roseland—one strike being a particularly flaccid gig that I'd caught in Paris over the summer and the other being a friend's comment that they sounded like Adam Sandler covering Yeasayer, a comparison almost too true it pretty much wrecked the band for me. However, to balance out those two strikes, the songs on their debut album An Awesome Wave could perhaps count as 14 marks in their favor? With a Mercury Music Prize under their belt, a song on the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack, and a continued string of sold-out shows, I ventured forth to see if their live show could further justify their recorded output.
After openers Hundred Waters created an atmospheric sound-scape to set the low-key but lush tone for the night, Alt-J took the stage to an expected wave of shouts and applause. At the show I'd witnessed prior, the audience could barely hear the vocals of frontman Joe Newman. This time around in the Rose City, his unique croon was able to easily possess the venue, sounding confident, assured and much more like a regular singing voice than the frail whisper it had before. Still, the band kept interaction and stage banter to a minimum, almost to its determent.
Who would've known that Kylie Minogue's overlooked single "Slow" would have a role in Alt-J's set, but there it was, its lyrics graphed over a keyboard part cribbed from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's classic "Still" and covered by Alt-J. While there didn't seem to be too much recognition of either song on behalf of the crowd, they stood rapt for the entirety of the mash-up/cover. A cover so good, I could've listened to it on loop for at least a few more rounds. (It sounded something like this.
) From that cover, the group segued into fan favorite "Matilda" which was one of the initial demos they ever unleashed onto the internet via Soundcloud. The audience sang the first line by themselves, loudly and in tune before Newman took back over as lead vocalist for the venue-wide sing-along.
Intricately strummed outros and interludes took their place throughout the set as did monastic sounding harmonies. There's a certain magic to their musicianship that washes over you like a surreal wave of nostalgia, calm and escape. In more than a handful of songs, the baselines and drum beats reverberate like stairs ushering you into the hiding place their songs create. A secret space akin to Roald Dahl novels and other things as whimsical as they are sinister. Perhaps best representational of this demeanor is "Breezeblocks," which the band performed to close out its regular set prior returning for an encore. An ode to tying down one's love with "soggy clothes" and cement blocks, somehow "Breezeblocks" comes across as charming and haunting all at once. Addictive too, which is fitting since the the love interest at the heart of the song is equated to morphine in the lyrics.
A top five list in mid-2010 compiled by longtime British blogger Jamila Scott served as my initial introduction to the group and led to feverish downloading on my part of the select few tracks they had at the time; a number that could be counted on one hand. And now with all their success making that discovery seem so distant—and even a lack of talking that belies their social media profile of quirky adventurers by way of enthusiastic photo shares—last night's show was able to recapture that initial excitement I had for them, launched nearly three years ago in front of a computer screen. While I'm still just as happy to sit home and listen to the record in similar fashion via my laptop, I'm most definitely happy that I did venture out too see them once more and restore that spark.