Better Than: open apple anything
The primary challenges Alt-J faced during their show at the Fonda last night were improper sound mixing (not their fault), and simply not having enough material to pull from to satisfy their audience (also not really their fault).
Despite these minor issues, the band, named after the Mac keyboard command for the “delta” sign (go ahead, try it), fully replicated the sonic intricacy, emotional delicacy and ominous beauty of their much-buzzed about 2012 debut An Awesome Wave. The album won the four man band Britain's Mercury Prize and loads of fans. The ones who showed up last night appeared to be primarily from Silver Lake.
Perhaps we were all wondering if Alt-J would be able to pull off the interwoven and precisely pitched vocals that give them a sort of modern medieval troubadour vibe. (I remember wondering this same thing before seeing the Fleet Foxes for the first time). Or maybe everyone was just scanning their Twitter feed for news about the 12/12/12 benefit happening in New York. Either way, despite a few missed notes, Alt-J basically made good on their buzz band status.
It went like this:
10:23PM: The young looking band, who met while studying at Leeds University, comes out and eases into the show with a rendition of their hushed, vocally complex “Interlude 1.” The vibe in the audience is anticipatory and nearly reverent. Beginning with this song seems almost like a tactical maneuver to immediately prove that yes, they can actually pull off their vocal harmonies in a live context. And they nail it. The audience, which seems to have been holding its collective breath, explodes at the end of the song. It's on.
10:28: Tessellation is defined as “the process of creating a two-dimensional plane using the repetition of a geometric shape with no overlaps and no gaps.” (Think soccer balls, Escher, honeycombs). Somehow, this makes “let's tessellate” an even more alluring if somewhat vague proposition, especially as singer Joe Newman coos it with his elastic twang of a voice. This is a rad, slow burn seduction of a song. The couple next to me makes out intensely.
10:33PM: For a moment, there is not one phone in the air taking subpar videos that will never be watched again. The audience is rapt.
10:35PM: When the song is done, a guy near the front lifts his hands in the air and makes a triangle symbol with his thumbs and pointer fingers. Alt-clapping!
10:38PM: For a minute during “Something Good,” the sound is turned up too high on the keyboards, thus revealing the thoughtful intricacy of the playing. There isn't a single computer on the stage.
10:40PM: A group of pretty girls next to me sway their hips and sing along softly. One is crying a little.
10:42PM: “I think this is the biggest gig we've ever done,” says keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, holding his heart. “So thank you. It's vey special.”
10:45PM: “Dissolve Me” does just that to me myself, via layers of shimmery guitar and vocal peaks and valleys. Their layered harmonies are basically flawless. Despite the guys' certain lack of stage presence, they are making sincere and uniquely beautiful music.
10:50PM: “Fitzpleasure” might be the best example of seemingly benign male choir parts (“tralalalalalala”) and bizarre lyrics (“in your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure/Deep greedy and Googling every corner), hitting a wall of ominous bass fuzz and exploding into a storm of thick sonic aggression. The song rises with the “ooohhhhOOHOOOHHHH” build and they nail the crescendo, causing many an arm to rise up into the air. We all kind of have a moment there.
10:53PM: The keyboardist thanks the audience for coming again.
10:55PM: They do “For Matilda.” So pretty and softly urgent. And with all these choral-type harmonies, the band even has a seasonally-appropriate caroler vibe.
11:03PM: The, uh, keyboardist thanks the crowd again.
11:07PM: And again.
11:12PM: After momentarily leaving the stage, the band comes back with a viola and violin player and do a haunting version of album standout “Taro.”
11:16PM: And that's about it. The primary issue in seeing a band with only one album is that it makes for for a relatively brief show. No matter. If anything, these 50 minutes indicate that the buzz Alt-J has received is well-deserved, and that there is likely a lot more to look forward to from them. We all shuffle out and disperse into the rain.
Personal Bias: I enjoy Silver Lake and often take crappy pictures of shows on my phone.
Overheard in the Crowd: “She's here with that guy I see her on Instagram with sometimes.”
Random Notebook Dump: “We are currently tessellating.”
Still D.R.E. (Cover)