Gallery: Alt-J at the Empty Bottle
An Awesome Wave has been ripening on the vines over in Europe for the better half of 2012. Since it’s debut earlier this year, Cambridge via Leeds’-be it the UK’s latest and newly Mercury nominated band has been making the rounds of the live music circuit. Early comparisons to Radiohead may seem a bit premature to newcomers, however their accomplishments in the past short year are impressive. Appearances at FNAC Live on the steps of Hôtel de Ville in Paris, Way Out West Festival in Gothenburg, Lowlands in the Netherlands and Latitude in Southwold cemented the eclectically progressive indie group as one of those must-sees. With the debut, a strong and mature release for a band so young, just released on American shores, Alt-J properly treated Chicago to a strikingly intimate concert at the Empty Bottle; something Europe won’t be seeing any time in the near future.
The opener, JBM, came from far closer than Europe. The Montreal songwriter calls Brooklyn and Los Angeles home now and boasts impressive opening slots including St. Vincent and The Tallest Man on Earth. Touring in support of Stray Ashes, he warmed up the chilly evening with more traditional singer/songwriter than something more unconventional. Skilled nonetheless, the crowd didn’t seem to hold too much, which was unfortunate. His drummer, Jason Lawrence, was an impressive talent behind the kit. He’s worth a listen for sure, outside of clinking bottles and afterwork chatter.
What’s all that gotta say about the Windy City? Those few that made it into the sold-out show…consider yourself lucky. Those who didn’t make it in time; get your tickets early next time they hop the pond. Despite forming relatively recently and almost by chance while at University of Leeds (our interview), Alt-J succeeds at translating their complex, technically demanding record to the stage just as well as locals A Lull do. Thom Green did a stellar job on percussion-bongos, cabasa, no cymbals-giving precision a new name on “Tessellate.” It wasn’t until that third song of the night that their music truly hit the crowd, swaying and lost to the measures as a Bonnaroo in the afternoon set would do. Problems with the low end of the sound system actually enhanced their performance, cutting down the bass and leaving those nuances in the piano and percussion to tickle the senses, especially on “Something Good” and the underwater float of “Ms.”
While you’d expect “Breezeblocks” to be the crowd’s highlight, Chicago was more enraptured by Alt-J’s nod to Luc Besson’s Léon with “Matilda.” Joe Newman’s vocals had exactly the calculated erratic quality in the way notes were hunted and pursued, accompanied by a chorus of the more entranced audiences that the Empty Bottle has seen. The only admittedly strange moment was towards the end, where the band let the crowd down slowly having already expensed their singles. “Hand-Made” was the dessert, a new song that didn’t make it on the European CD release (at least in France…how it got past me is beyond me!) but made it on the Amazon.com MP3 and iTunes US releases. A nice, welcome surprise since the set followed the album pretty faithfully Friday night. “Taro” though was a tremendous end, leaving the mood light and nearly celebratory as the UK band waved off and earnestly thanked the hundreds who came out.