We at Mezzic are not alone in our love for Cambridge-based alt-J. Their irresistible debut album, An Awesome Wave, encourages the listener to remember the original, pre-”80s slang” meaning of the word. A lush mix of sounds that run the gambit from light and sensual to dark and frantic, the record has inspired wonder while making rounds on the internet and airwaves, seducing listeners from every corner of the globe. But this isn’t just another buzz band phenomenon. All across the US, Alt-J has been selling out shows in support of their recent release. Their packed set at Triple Rock with support from JBM was no exception.
I hadn’t heard much of Jesse Merchant, the Canadian singer-songwriter behind JBM, before he took the stage with his band for their last tour show in support of Alt-J while supporting their 2012 release, Stray Ashes. Two minutes, in, I was sure I’d heard him before; certainly, somewhere. Merchant’s talent is unique in its familiarity: with a mellow croon that brings to mind Robert Francis, AA Bondy, or Nick Drake. His songs evoke a myriad of possible influences without being monotonous. Onstage, his skill for emoting through both lyrics and vocals really shines, and darker, listless songs are juxtaposed with simplistic layers of rhythm, bass, and steel guitar.
Disappointingly, the crowd was not as welcoming for the opening set as one would expect, but the listeners crowding the stage won out. Building slowly on their repertoire of folk tunes like the jangly-but-forlorn “Winter Ghosts” and the reverent, melancholic “You Always Keep Around,” JBM’s set reached a decided peak when they hit their penultimate number, “Moonwatcher.” With a solemn, echoey build, they worked up to crashing guitars that quieted even the worst of the shutthefuckup-ers before ending with the equally dark “Keeping Up.”
My biggest concern going into the show was how Alt-J would stack up live when pit against their Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, An Awesome Wave. Subtle and complex to a mathematical degree, the Cambridge-based outfit sets the bar high. While the digital play of the album moves at languid speeds, the live atmosphere is practically electric. Crowd favorites “Tessellate,” “Fitzpleasure,” and “Breezeblocks” rush by in a mass of stomping feet and flailing limbs. At least on the crowd’s part.
The beauty and appeal of Alt-J’s music lie in its intricate balance; the distinct harmonies that arise from Joe Newman’s eccentric vocal style and Gus Hamilton’s backup, the play between Gwilym Sainsbury’s meandering bass lines and Thom Green’s diligently precise drumming, and the addition of surprising musical elements on each track (I had never heard a glockenspiel that qualified as “sexy” before that second verse of “Breezeblocks”…). With so many elements in play, it stands to reason that some things get lost in the transition from speakers to stage. But what set this show apart was that any sound imbalances were completely offset by crowd participation. From “Matilda” to “Dissolve Me” to “Something Good,” each and every word came with a back-up choir and the doting enthusiasm normally reserved for bands with ten times the notoriety.
The most surprising aspect of the set – other than the moment where a crowd member presented the band with a jar of homemade pickles – was the professionalism of such a young group. Light on the banter, the set flowed smoothly from song to song with just a few stops to express their gratitude at yet another sold-out show on the road. In the face of an overwhelming crowd presence, vocals were smooth and harmonies still complex. Most impressive was drummer Thom Green’s consistently tight performance on songs that rely so heavily mathematical percussion. That might be biased, considering that in my 2ft distance from the drum kit I can appreciate the fact that he’s throwing back Bell’s Two Hearted (I appreciate a preference for IPAs in any person), but more likely it’s a telling example of the finely-tuned skill set that Alt-J is so obviously founded on – which has been, and will continue to propel them to the next level.
* Apologies for late posting; author attempted to post on out-of-date server