If it’s true that music is the door to the spirit, and live music is a communal experience, then I totally communed with the spirit world this past Wednesday evening when I went to see Alt-J in concert at the Bowery Ballroom.
Alt-J is an English band that recently released their debut CD, An Awesome Wave to descriptions like “completely fresh and groovy” and “haunting and bittersweet.” The album is being released in the US tomorrow, and the band is currently completing their second North American tour before they head to Australia and then back to Europe for the month of November. These guys – Gwil Sainsbury (guitarist/bassist), Joe Newman (guitar/vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards) and Thom Green (drums) – unless they suddenly decide they really meant to be engineers and they were just kidding about this music thing… they’re gonna be huge. You can just feel it.
Critics will make their comparisons to different groups, but I have my own frame of reference. These guys take me back to the art rock groups of the 70’s that blew my mind with their complex melodic and rhythmic arrangements back in my friend’s basement where I sat against the wall for hours, hopelessly stoned, singing along to every lyric and alternately playing air guitar, keyboard and drum. We’re talking Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer… At other moments I hear the sparse, crisp arrangements of 80’s British alt-rock groups like the Smiths, or New Order. Melodically and lyrically, I feel bits of Doves, Coldplay, the Decemberists…
I could undertake a decade by decade comparison with older groups, but why bother? Alt-J has an altogether original sound that distinguishes them from the pack. The first time I heard them was earlier this summer when David Dye played the track Fitzpleasure on his NPR radio show, The World Cafe. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to, really. First these sparse a capella harmonies, then this solo voice kicks in that reminds me of Senegalese singer, Youssou N’Dour, and then this deep, vibrate-my-ass synth and bass trip-hop sound kicks in, and I’m thinking WTF is going on? I was fascinated, moved and completely hooked. I found their page on Soundcloud and have been listening to their songs ever since.
Seeing them live, they deliver their music with a combination of confidence, precision, honesty and humility that makes me love them even more. They are tight. Their lyrics are poetic, intelligent, and not at all obvious, with literary, film and other pop culture references sprinkled throughout. One look at the band’s song annotations reveals inspiration ranging from filmmaker Luc Besson and writers Hubert Selby Jr. and Maurice Sendak to war photographers & lovers, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. These four graduates from Leeds University have clearly put their English Literature and Fine Art studies to good use.
Leading up to this concert, I was overtaken by a kind of inner tingle that made me feel like a groupie. Forgetting all conventional wisdom of reaching out to press contacts or management, I tweeted and FB’d my desire to interview the band before the show, giving over to the mostly delusional belief that out of their 24,000+ followers and 78,000+ FB likes they would notice ME and want to connect personally. Well, of course that didn’t happen, but it did fill me with a deep thrill when I finally found myself looking up at them from about 10 feet off the stage, watching them play and being surrounded by this amazing music I’ve been obsessed with for the past few months.
There is nothing quite like rocking out in an audience of fellow fans to a new, favorite band. Joining in with everyone singing the line “Get high” together in Something Good, or “Please don’t go, please don’t go, I love you so, I love you so” in Breezeblocks, or those moments of deep synth kick-in during Dissolve Me, or the transcendent guitar work in Fitzpleasure, and in Taro, where the beat becomes veritably tribal… (sigh) Yeah, I dug it.
But what I enjoyed most of all was knowing that I was there at the beginning of something special – an extraordinary time in the life of a band. I remember seeing the group Dire Straits back in their very first US show, and the B-52’s during their debut tour that same year. Breathless and wide-eyed, the performers were practically lifting off the stage. It was clear to the audience that we were in on something amazing then, too – both groups went on to major artistic and commercial success, but we just bonded with them on sheer talent and energy.
Alt-J will be well equipped to move forward into their almost certain stardom if they maintain the humility and cool they showed the crowd last week. In addition to being incredibly disciplined and uber creative musicians, they seem like regular guys – totally into film and books and stuff – the kind of guys I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with. Though they will soon be described in larger than life terms, for now, I’m happy to think of them as this group of really smart musicians… who happen to be taller than I expected in real life.
An Awesome Wave is now available in the US for download on iTunes