Alt-J Revives the Slow Jam at the Fillmore Auditorium
Alt-J is among rare company as an internationally successful pop act that attracts mostly 20-somethings who danced elegantly on every spare piece of Fillmore floor - and stairway, to security's dismay. Nowhere to be seen were the loud-mouthed bro-downers and screaming teenagers frequently populating the concerts of the band's peers.
It was during the rising English "folktronica" quartet's stunningly original version of the Bill Withers classic "Lovely Day," the entrance to a four-song encore, that it hit me: slow is cool. Slow is powerful. Slow may even be the new fast.
Forgoing the well-known hook of "Lovely Day," in which the title is repeatedly quickly, Alt-J - named after the ∆ symbol on a Mac - deepened, and somehow made cinematic, an already almost mythical groove by projecting the feeling of inspirational descent that pervades the group's music. The young and enthusiastic sell-out crowd of some 4,000 bounced with their hands in the air.
On its two enjoyable studio albums (the most recent of which hit #1 in the UK) Alt-J - formed in 2007 - sometimes falls short of aspirations that ostensibly include merging the mesmerizing sonic fury of Foals and post-2000 Radiohead with the dreamy atmospherics of Sigur Ros and the white-boy disco of classless electro jammers like Particle. Part of the problem is Joe Newman's sometimes-laughable Brett Dennen-esque high-pitched drawl, which is alternately grating and endearing; part of it is a whiff of surprisingly amateurish engineering. But from the first notes of the Alt-J's performance at the Fillmore, something profound seemed to move both band and writhing audience: the aforementioned descending grooves and polyrhythms. I was reminded of the widely held belief that James Brown saw every instrument in his band, including vocals, as percussion.
The keyboards, vocals, guitars and drums of Alt-J - its members' serious onstage attitudes, complimented by a sleek light show, the antithesis of teeny-bopper opening act Lovelife - were just that: disparate instruments used as connected percussion to create something so appealing that Fillmore ushers were inspired to move garbage cans out of the way to give revelers more dancing space.
Drummer Thom Green was the glue. For such a huge sound to move such a huge audience without cymbals (or more than a hint of electronic cymbals) was impressive, as was the fact that Green's drumming garnered such comments around me as "This drummer shreds!" without playing many fills whatsoever. The lack of cymbals let Green and his band mates get classily funky without Alt-J's cascading guitars and nasal vocals having to fight for treble over thick, intensely mellow dance beats that, again, propelled the huge Denver audience to jump around.
Earlier this year at the Ogden at a Foals show, I was reminded of the Talking Heads by the aerobic stage presence and upbeat, cerebral music. Alt-J also takes a page from Byrne & Co.'s by doing something exceptionally artful with truly accessible music. Closing its encore with the deceptively disturbing "Breezeblocks," with its "please don't go / I'll eat you whole / I love you so" chorus, Alt-J sounded a little like Modest Mouse covering Remain in Light, energizing with descent. Last night, slow was funky, and love was more than a little mad.
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