They began with “Intro”, the opening song from their autumn 2012 release An Awesome Wave. Predictable? Yeah, but who cares. Nobody did on this night, that can be said with certainty. It was only fitting really. Alt-J (∆) took to the stage during a recent early spring Chicago evening at The Metro, which is a pretty badass place to perform for any band making their post-debut-album-release tour. For many Chicago-land or Midwestern bands the time they play at The Metro will be a highlight of their career. For a seasoned touring band it is an honored place to make a stop. So needless to say, playing there for what is basically your Chicago introduction, is a rarity and a curiosity. And then you add the fact that tickets were selling outside the doors for 8x what they initially sold for, and you might get the idea that the atmosphere was more than a little humming with feverish anticipation.
The Metro holds a little over a thousand people and presents it’s performers and audience with an pleasantly inclosed yet grand music venue. With a large balcony, and a slightly tiered ground at both levels, the band looks out at a sea of faces from all sides while the audience also feels wrapped in people. Yet it never comes off, or felt on this night, as too crowded even though it was undoubtedly at capacity.
“Intro” was played at a pace just slightly below that of the album. This added a thickness to the sound, and since they were immediately in perfect sync (as they have 1 album that they are voraciously touring upon, one would hope this would be true, and it was), there was a fleecy vigor in the sound that immediately intoxicated the ravenous crowd. They continued to mirror the album by moving into “Interlude 1” and then “Tessellate”.
There is something so exhilarating when a crowd sings the words to songs in joyous unison. As the tickets to this concert went on sale what felt like a half year before the date, one could sense a pent up energy that was finally being liberated with “Tessellate”. With slight bpm changes and minor alterations in the vocal energies the band on this song, and with others, endowed their music with a discernible “live” quality – which is important for a band with 1 album that cannot break out many surprises due to an understandable lack of material. Other things that became immediately apparent to the first-time-viewer, the drummer Thom seriously uses zero cymbals – which is one thing to hear and another to see. The lead singer Joe doesn’t talk to the audience, that’s apparently the job of the keyboardist Gus. The foursome is calm and confident on stage, but you can also tell is still getting used to the limelight.
Two songs later, in “Something Good”, the band showed off it’s ability to move from projecting a feeling of bubbly happiness to quasi-psychedelic disconcertion and back again. And really, those are two emotional landscapes they moved between often on this night, and with deft skill as well. This was then followed by “Buffalo”, which was a calmer track not found on their album, and was an escape from their very album-like song progression on this night.
“Ms” followed soon after and was one of the clear highlights of the evening. With the audience doing its best Gregorian chant impressions within the choruses, the band truly seemed like they were making their way through this track with self-evident energy fluctuations, which were communally felt, as if the audience was on a boat in a brook making it’s way through a changing landscape provided by those on the stage. A couple minutes into the song, after the aforementioned building a-capella choruses, the crowd sang along with the band, “The nights of all my youth pressed into one glass of water”, before the awaited release of pitter-pattering percussion surrounded by blithely floating guitars and synths. The exalted moment caused this author to just burst into ecstatic laughter (“Am I really here right now?”), many others screamed, some smiled, there was a few high fives to be seen in the crowd.
They ended their set with “Breezeblocks”, which was given an energetic extension of sorts, one that became more psychedelic and raucous than the album version. To say the crowd ate it up would be an understatement. For an encore they played “Hand Made”, which closes our their album, before a cover of “A Real Hero” and then saying goodbye with “Taro” – with it’s middle eastern inspired jam near the end that that slowly decayed into elegant silence.
Before the concert even started a guy came onto the stage, who was from some radio station promoting the show, whose job it was to tell us how awesome this band is and how it’ll be a great show and to remember some call numbers (it was 87 something…). Every concertgoer knows this routine, it’s a regular pre-show thing we’ve all seen done many times. Yet when this nameless character told us that one day we might look fondly back upon this day and proudly proclaim that we can “remember when we saw Alt-J play at a place like The Metro” he said that with the utmost sincerity. And everyone in the audience agreed. One could hear numerous “that’s what I’ve been saying” or, “didn’t I say just that before the show” and, “yep, they’ll never play anywhere this small in Chicago again!”
That was the general feeling in the room that night, that we few who had found entry to this show from this band who released an album that we were all deeply in love with, that we were the lucky ones. There wasn’t any doubt in the air. This was one of those rare shows. And who knows what will happen after they tour themselves to death in 2013, or if they will be able to avoid a sophomore slump album and ever reach the heights their fans now expect of them. But on this Spring evening in Chicago, and forever after in our memories, we saw one of “the great ones” before the whole world knew they were great. At least that’s how it felt in the audience, even though – we were in love before we walked into the building.
Predictable? Maybe – but who cares.
Written by Sean Brna
OurVinyl | Editor