7 p.m. The doors to Ace of Spades are to open soon and the line of eager fans wraps the length of the R Street block, twice. Sunday’s all-ages show sold out within days after going on sale. But the venue isn’t just packed with teens dressed in Thunder Horse’s cropped shirts and jean short cut-offs. The 900-person capacity room has plenty of 21 and over attendees squeezed into its small side bars and patios.
∆ (pronounced Alt-J), first to mark mainstream media in early 2012, has shortly since been packing concert halls and music venues across the country, all the way to the other side of the pond, where they call home. Within a year of releasing its first full-length album, the British-based band won the Mercury Prize and soon filled its schedules with in-studio recordings, blog posts and Vimeo-cued music videos.
“Where did you first learn of these guys?” I ask the 16-year-old next to me. “Reddit. We all heard about them through Reddit,” he grins as he’s enveloped back into a small circle of teenage friends.
It’s no surprise Alt-J has caught indie and mainstream attention alike. The band, who’s come to be recognized for unexpected dub-step beats and synthesized vocals, crosses a series of musical tastes. Front-man Joe Newman’s nasally vocals elicit an attentive trance, freely interweaving falsetto melodies and harmonic humming. Their live performances carry the same edgy interest. While the group doesn’t stray far from their recorded set, leaving a little bit lacking in the freestyle realm, it does stress crowd-pleasing rifts and notes, best heard within Alt-J’s first few played songs.
Most well-known, “Tessellate,” starts off deep and heavy with repetitive keyboard chords. After an extended intro, the band members blend in multiple elements; bass, guitar and drums, snaking Newman’s vocals as an added layer. On amplified speakers, Thom Green’s percussions drive a cuttingly clear ting-ting-ting; the cowbell quite fitting for a Sacramento crowd. The beats continue, rhythmic, and then fall clear away into a stretched silence before a haunting vocal drawl – “Till morning comes….let’s Tessellate.”
Other favorites of the night include Alt-J’s midway performance of “Matilda.” With whispered vocals and picked strings, the sweet hymn is stretched with growing crescendos and balanced with light snare taps. Newman introduces the first lines, “This is from, this is from…” and waits for the crowd to slide back, “this is from Matilda.” The most up-beat of An Awesome Wave’s song collection, the tune poses a strong contrast to the eerie and sometimes dark lyrics of such hits like “Breezeblocks,” which ends with a murderous allusion and is the last song played before the band slips past their electric lights into the dark backstage to await an encore.
Alt-J ends with a satisfying exaust of “Taro.” Metallophone tones replicate Asian influences, referencing the lyrical tribute to two romantically engaged photojournalists who lost their lives photographing war zones; Robert Capo in Indochina and Gerda Taro during the Spanish Civil War.
The lights dim and the crowd files out, sticky with (Fitz)pleasure.
Alt-J returns to the West Coast in late Fall. Catch them at Oakland’s Fox Theater on August 29th or Portland’s McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom on September 3rd.
Also, check out well-received Hundred Waters, Alt-J’s opener. The young band has also toured with popular group, The xx, and will continue to accompany Alt-J on stage for the duration of their U.S shows.