Living High on Alt-J


I love music more than just about anything in the world. It can transport me, or stop me in my tracks, send my spirit soaring in directions I hadn’t figured on just a moment earlier. It is visceral, primal, deeply meaningful to me. So of course, when I connect with a band the way I have with the music of Alt-J, it’s only logical I’m going to share it with my son, Josiah.

On Sunday night, I took him to NYC’s Terminal 5 to see this English indie group, one of my fave new bands of the last year. He’s kind of young to bring to a show like this, but I knew how much he’d get into it. He’s almost 10 and has grown to love their album, An Awesome Wave (winner of the 2012 British Mercury Prize), almost as much as I do, particularly the song Fitzpleasure, which was the first track either of us heard. If you don’t know this recording yet, just go listen to it. Google it. Their stuff is purely creative, hard to define, at turns mathematically precise, filled with literary allusion and primal rhythm and incredibly moving. I’m a total fan.


A word or two about the group. It’s obvious they are well trained musicians, great songwriters and singers, and they bring a deep concentration to their deft blend of art rock, funk, trip hop, rich harmonies, eclectic instrumentation… It’s hard to categorize their sound. It’s wholly original. I will tell you that they engage people in a way that goes beyond commercialism, and I did hear plenty of people singing along to the lyrics. And they are gaining confidence as performers, inhabiting the stage with more authority than the last time I saw them in NYC, at the considerably smaller Bowery Ballroom. Their hair is changing, too… a new haircut on Joe, moustache on Gus…

I was nervous about bringing my little guy – wondered if “all ages show” really meant just that, or if they’d stop me at the door for trying to bring in such an extreme minor. In a last minute panic moment, I even suggested that if anyone who works there asks his age he should say 13… that is, until he looked at me, wide-eyed and said, “Mom, I can’t believe you. What a hypocrite,” for asking him to lie. “Never mind, I was just kidding,” I replied, instantly sorry I had even said something. “Forget it, don’t worry, let’s just go have a good time…”

In the end, I needn’t have worried. At the door, the guy checking ID’s greeted him warmly with a “Hey buddy!” and proceeded to draw giant black X’s on his hands in magic marker, so that he couldn’t buy a beer even if he wanted to…

Once we got inside, we made our way quickly to the front of the house, where people had already started to assemble in front of the stage, easily working our way up to the front row, as I had this totally short kid with me, and clearly that’s the only way he was going to see anything. We landed a spot directly in the center of the house, surrounded by teenage girls, in what would have certainly been a rowdy mosh pit has this been a different sort of show.

I don’t know how to write about this without sounding like a proud parent creating one of those detailed holiday letters. I’m not sure how to convey the mix of emotions I felt bringing my kid into this uncertain environment where people get too drunk, and the smell of weed floats around from time to time (second time that night I was glad that he is short) and random hostilities can surface in a second… yet the thrill of sharing one of the all time best experiences modern life has to offer – seeing a rock band perform live, and feeling the pulse of the music move through your body… I’m pretty sure it was worth it.


“It was making my chest vibrate and then it shocked my bladder.”

Good thing we went to the bathroom towards the end of the warm-up band’s set (a fine job by Hundred Waters). A mother knows when there’s no way you can ignore a request to go. It was a bit harrowing, making our way out of the crowd, which by that point had expanded to at least five times as deep as it was when we first arrived. Leaving out the side was tough, but not nearly as bad as trying to get back into the pack, past some surly drunk guys who mocked me when I said, “We’re just trying to get back to where we already were.” People get so cranky. Fortunately, we squeezed our way back to safe territory unscathed and put down roots until our band was ready to take the stage.

I’m not sure which I enjoyed more, the music or my son’s pleasure. It was the sweetest mix of personal and vicarious thrill. Once Alt-J started playing, any feelings of doubt I had about bringing my kid into this decidedly adult situation disappeared, and all I could think was that he was having an experience that would fundamentally shape his perspective going forward. This was the kind of music that absolutely cemented itself into my soul the first time I heard it, back in my teen years. He’s getting a jump on it, being barely a pre-teen himself. By the time he’s a teenager, he’ll be a seasoned music veteran.

We’ve been to the NY Philharmonic in the park. We’ve seen Dan Zanes outdoors, too. We saw Father & Son perform in a college auditorium, we’ve played west African drums on the banks of the Hudson River and his uncle has taken him to see Wynton Marsalis perform Duke Ellington. At home, we listen to everything from jazz and hip hop to heavy metal, power pop, bluesy funk and classical piano concertos. We groove on gospel and Motown, Nirvana and Stevie Wonder, moody singer songwriters and the Beatles. I can’t wait to bring him to more live music shows. It’s my responsibility to make sure that my son has as broad a musical background as possible. At least, that’s how I see it…

When some women behind us screamed exceptionally loud after one song, Josiah looked up at me and said, “Is that even legal? They should have their own permit…”

And then they played our favorite song, Fitzpleasure. Amazing.


Yeah, Gwil, I dug the smile you flashed at me and my boy. Not your usual size fan, I’m sure. I hope you know how awesome it was for him to be that close to you guys while you played. And Joe, at the end of the encore, when you looked down and pointed directly at us, to give the set list specifically to my son, well that was the coolest thing in the world you could have done. Afterwards, a couple of people asked if they could take a picture of the paper, but then I told my kid to put it into his pocket until we got to the car. I figured that would be the safest bet…

altj sayin goodbye final

Later on, after we left the venue, he asked me, “How do I get this ringing sound out of my ear?” I told him not to worry, that it would fade…


Pictures above by Deborah Oster Pannell.

Check out more cool concert pics from Amanda Hatfield here (scroll down a little to see one very short concertgoer in the front row)…


2 responses »

  1. I don’t think Unsung Mag has seen anything like what you have written. And we have been searching for you to say the least! Thank you so much for this share! The band is a new find for us too and is now on our list of favorites!

    We are a digital magazine that focuses on the world of underground music and we would love to include this piece in our next issue. We are doing a tribute to the 21st century music fans and think that the example of your son, being 10, had an amazing time at this show. We are looking to bridge the gap between musicians and their fans and also between fans; we would love to help you to get more readers and at the same time getting Alt-J more fans!

    We would love to hear from you!

    Kam @Unsung Mag

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