I was somewhat surprised to learn Alt-J, a nerdy English indie rock group whose biggest hit uses geometry as a sexual metaphor, sold out the 9:30 Club. I was even more taken aback that tickets were in overwhelming demand. Bouncers brushed away babyfaced teens holding printed-out “NEED A TICKET” signs from the club’s stoop. Those inside told me they paid nearly thrice face value—over $50—to watch the quartet play their debut album for barely an hour. All this for a band named after a keyboard shortcut?
A trying part of music journalism is corralling the right words to describe an inoffensive artist. Opener Hundred Waters were neither good nor bad. Hailing from Gainesville, the “digital folk” quintet can be adequately compared to Dirty Projectors, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, or even Tune-Yards. Singer/keyboardist Nicole Miglis reached for the fluttering, high notes, trying her best to mimic Julia Holter or Joanna Newsom. To her left, two guys alternated between pushing buttons on samplers to fooling around on bass and guitar. To her right, another brunette provided backup vocals and assorted percussion. At one point, she even brought out a flute. Pretty music, but nothing thrilling.
Alt-J took the stage shortly after 9:30, cruising through their customary “Intro” before segueing into the a capella “Ripe & Ruin,” which prominently features vocal tics as made popular by one William Joel on “Movin’ Out (Anthony Song).” The third song of the night was also the third song off their debut album, making me wonder if Alt-J was going to play through the album in order. (They varied slightly.)
“Tessellate,” the aforementioned math-sex song, sounded nearly identical to the recorded version. Sure, it was pleasant to hear vocalist/guitarist Joe Newman (who was wearing a gifted 9:30 Club shirt) sing, “Triangles are my favorite shape / Three points where two lines meet,” but I was alarmed by just how low-energy everybody was. You all really paid $50 to just stand there and listen to an English bloke with a weird voice sing about polygons? Did the sequester affect your hips?
As weird as it was to see a sold-out crowd have a moderate reaction to one of Alt-J’s most recognizable songs (I thought “Tessellate” sounded excellent), the rest of the evening was far more spirited. “Something Good” featured a supple bass line that finally got the audience off their ass. The chirps of “Dissolve Me” and winding, fuzzy shifts of “Fitzpleasure” were a highlight. A guy next to me said about slow-moving “Matlida”: This isn’t my favorite song, but I guess it’s all right.
In contrast to the lazy reaction to their other hit, everyone went bonkers for “Breezeblocks,” shouting out each of the “Nah-nah-nahs” and singing proudly along to Newman’s heartbreaking, “Please don’t go I’ll eat you whole / I love you so, I love you so.” After the fake lull for the encore, the group came back out to perform the acoustic, Mumford & Sons-ready “Hand-Made” and “Taro,” a sprightly guitar track that ended the night on a muted note.
As they were leaving the stage, guitarist/bassist Gwil Sainsbury formed his fingers into a triangle shape that replicated their ∆ symbol. The guy next to me, the same one that was ambivalent about “Matlida,” mistook the gesture, instead throwing up a diamond, giving props to either Hova or Diamond Dallas Page.
In conclusion, Alt-J reminds me a lot of The XX. Both groups won Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize—think the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, except not a joke—for their debut album. When The xx toured for their first album in 2009, they sounded exactly as they did on record with little deviation or improvisation. When I saw them again in January, they had matured into different beast: exciting, dynamic, and confident. I can only hope when Alt-J returns to DC, they also show such growth.