Live Music: Alt-J at the Fillmore, San Francisco
Alt-J (so named for the neato triangle you can make using your keyboard—∆) headlined a sold-out show at the Fillmore the other night. The band got together in 2007 at Leeds University, but it wasn’t until 2012 that they released their first full-length. They presumably spent those years injecting elements of every genre they’ve ever been influenced by into the eclectic tapestry of their sound. An Awesome Wave is a beautiful, incongruent piece of work. It reflects tedious discipline and a vast array of influences, a collection of disparate pieces presented in a bizarre cacophony of noise and layers, strung through with instrumental interludes, startling vocals, and pretty keys. Even when they reached deep to meld together such jarring oddities like dirty bass to melodic folk, it works. The album flows. It doesn’t sound hollow or overly ambitious. The shit is totally catchy, all 14 songs through.
If the dudes were lesser songwriters, or perhaps took less time crafting the record into cohesion, it would be a pretentious, unholy mess.
That bodes interestingly for a live performance—can they fill a headliner spot with just one painstakingly conceived album? Can they create all that live? Was it made slick by studio tricks? Does it translate beyond the intimacy of headphones? The band won England’s prestigious Mercury Prize last year, so expectations are on for these guys to deliver. A quick look into Metacritic reveals that most critics found the album artful and innovative, good to excellent, while a few found it overwrought and underwhelming. While I had no reason to think that the band wouldn’t put on a solid live show, their dearth of material after 5 years together could mean they lack the vitality necessary for any young band to endure.
And what sounds vibrant and eclectic in the studio could be a total racket live.
Despite my curious skepticism, I was totally satisfied by Alt-J’s performance at the Fillmore last Wednesday. The brevity of their set, which was barely an hour long, made me yearning for more, sure. But in a live context, An Awesome Wave is still totally engaging, and the sold-out crowd knew every song. They also played a few new tracks as well as a clever mash-up of Kylie Minogue and Dr. Dre dubbed “Slow Dre”, which the audience went nuts for. And then it was over.
After catching them live, I am convinced that their exceptional songwriting skills are not manufactured, they’re tight as can be, and those unwieldy songs indeed stand up in a live context. Alt-J can rise to the occasion, and for a band with a great album that should be enough.
But I didn’t realize I was missing something until the show ended early and the overhead lights beamed on. I just wanted more—some urgency, power, an energy so strong I could harness it. A palpable potential in their stage presence, a fire in their voice. Alt-J captivated me with their pretty tunes and charm, and at times I stood transfixed. So what’s my problem? These guys are so young and talented, with their messy melodies and an award-winning album—is it too much to want my ears to ring for days, with a newfound buoyancy in my step, lit up from the instead with my jaw on the floor? I know I can feel this way through music, be it through a young emerging artist or wizened band I’ve seen countless times before. I want Alt-J to stick around, create another album or two or five for us to collectively dissect and embrace. I want them to sell out stages worldwide. I wanted to discover unflinching talent, lasting and secured. I saw hints of it at the Fillmore, but the truth is I wanted more.