I'd first heard Alt-J while listening to Seattle's KEXP podcast earlier in the fall, as the rains began in the Bay. KEXP was laying them on thick, and it's no wonder. The humble soar of Alt-J's harmonies, the pick and pluck of their eerie lyrics, their crashing synth and well-paired acoustic arpeggios are suited perfectly to the west coast in winter.
I saw Alt-J last December, at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. The venue is small, narrow, wrapped in exposed brick and a satisfying film of grunge past. It's the kind of place that hosts both small local bands playing to a near empty floor and visiting groups who have only just caught scent of success. It surprised me, when I arrived, to find the place packed. Alt-J's sound is distinct and beautiful, but I hadn't anticipated their popularity.
The show was excellent. Bottom of the Hill is so intimate that their performance almost felt like a personal favor the band was doing for us. At a certain point, I looked around and realized that everyone was mouthing the lyrics. Typically, those situations creep me out (looking at you, people who love that Lumineers song too much), but on that cold humid night, it felt like a giddy secret being shared among strangers.
When I shot their recent show at the Fox Theater in Oakland, it was the same experience, but magnified twenty-fold. When the show was announced a few months back, it sold out so quickly that the Fox added another night. Alt-J's performance was explosive. Their light show was kaleidoscopic, and brilliantly timed with everything from their crystalline a capella interludes to their bombastic, hard-driving crowd pleasers, like FitzPleasure or Tessellate. The audience was rapt and ecstatic. The Fox is a massive, beautiful theater, and Alt-J filled it just as well as it filled Bottom of the Hill.
I love seeing a band having a good time on stage, as electrified by the crowd as it is by them. In the end, it was the band's sense of gratitude to the crowd that I most affected me, and that best connected those two shows for me. They are extraordinarily young to suddenly be playing at Coachella and Bonnaroo, to be playing a set with the Flaming Lips at SXSW. When they won the Mercury Prize last year, they thanked their parents for "not making [them] get jobs."
It's always great to see an artist becoming successful, despite what certain music blogs may say in their headlong rush to be the most supercilious, disaffected passel of nudniks on the Internet. Keep it up, boys.
Follow Brian Holton Henderson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/The_Holtron