In last week’s show, what evidence proved that Alt-J is a nerd-rock band? 1) Towels (not beer) laid out neatly for each of them on stage by a dutiful stagehand–clearly this was in their rider contract somewhere; 2) Two glockenspiels on set; 3) The members enter and leave the stage, one flashing the “Delta” sign (Alt-J is the Mac keyboard shortcut to the symbol ∆, in itself a nerdy reference to the Greek symbol for change)–and many in the crowd flash the goofy gang-sign back. “Triangles are my favorite shape,” Joe Newman sings,”three points where two lines meet.” His voice ranges from oddly nasal to high falsetto, vocalizing lyrics that are hard to decipher but make reference to eclectic topics like the digits in pi, random French phrases, and broom-shaped dildos. Or something. Much of it is delivered in harmony with keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, an effect that often sounds like monks chanting in a monastery. Drums are tight, more like a marching band, and the guitar work is precise. The overall effect, just like on the album, is that you are witnessing a complex composition, a piece of art that is hard to take apart.
Nevertheless, the young crowd is adoring. They shout back lyrics that they must have read online somewhere. The band’s sudden popularity is evident in this show’s transfer to the sterile Roseland, the sell-out of this larger venue, and the announcement of a show at the larger-yet Crystal Ballroom in August. Ticket prices climb, too–from the $16 I paid for this one to $30 next time around. For a band with a single album. A fine one at that, but maybe they’re shooting for an arena tour the next time around. Hope not. But ever since Arcade Fire won a Grammy for their own arty themed album, The Suburbs, all bets are off.
Alt-J puts on a great show, but from a grumpy perspective it was almost too perfect, an exact replication of their recorded work. The best live shows are a glimpse behind the curtain, a chance to see how a band clicks. My bias is toward performances that are rough around the edges. Alt-J was anything but, and even though it was a chance to see how they could perform such a mix of cut-and-paste elements, it’s still pretty opaque. David Byrne writes that it’s unfair that we ask bands to be good at both recording remarkable music and performing it live, but that’s what makes the great ones stand out. To be sure, many of the songs Alt-J performed were incredible–”Taro” was beautiful, with its stunning slide guitar passages. Also, they performed an acoustic set earlier in the day at Mississippi Studios, which sounds like it was a totally different side of the band, as in the Tiny Desk Concert linked below. Perhaps that’s their Nirvana moment, when the band shows what it can really do when all its tricks are unplugged, and maybe the adoring fanatics are right about these guys after all.