Alt-J – Nottingham Rock City, Monday 13 May
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
Alt-J aren’t a band who normally bring moshpits to mind. An Awesome Wave, their Mercury Prize winning album, is a studied, reflective and delicate piece of work, which places them on the artier wing of indie-pop. It’s a far from gloomy affair – the melodies are bright and dextrous, and the often unfathomable lyrics conceal flashes of wit – but with a tempo that rarely rises much above mid-paced, it’s hardly an album to rock out to.
So what was it about this mild-mannered, neatly groomed band’s carefully rehearsed and precisely delivered performance that tipped the main floor of a sold out Rock City into a seething, chaotic frenzy? Perhaps the relative lateness of the hour had something to do with it; following two support acts, and ample opportunities for the crowd to visit the bar, Alt-J didn’t take the stage until a quarter to ten. Or perhaps this was simply a crowd that was hell-bent on having a good time, regardless of the source material.
By the third number, Tessellate, the moshers were running riot, bellowing along to the decidedly unanthemic lyrics (“triangles are my favourite shape, three points where two lines meet”) and raising their hands into the same shapes en masse (on Apple computers, the band’s name represents the keyboard shortcut for a Delta symbol).
“I hope you’re all looking after each other, because it’s starting to get nasty out there!” said keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton after Dissolve Me, a song that was supposed to be about calming down. His words seemed to have the opposite effect; less than halfway through the next number, Fitzpleasure, a sizeable circle had been carved out in the middle of the floor, ready for the body-slammers to pile in.
Later in the set, Matilda was transformed into a terrace anthem, and by the time that the band reached Ms, supposedly a dark lullaby (“close eyes, open, close again, forget and fall asleep”), a lone shoe could be spotted, surfing the crowd from side to side. Was this standard behaviour for an Alt-J gig? The band’s bemused smiles suggested that it probably wasn’t.
Away from the main floor, older elements of the audience responded very differently. Although equally rapt, they stood motionless, savouring the beauty of the playing. These were the broadsheet readers, the Later with Jools viewers, the Mercury Prize demographic.
For those less intimately familiar with the material, perhaps the evenly paced set lacked a certain amount of light and shade; it could have done with a bit more drama, and a bit more passion. And at a mere fifty-seven minutes, two or three more songs wouldn’t have gone amiss, either. But why quibble, when geeky art-rockers are treated like rock gods? This was Rock City at its best.