Alt-J at the Fillmore, Denver
by Adam Perry for Westword
For an internationally successful pop act like Alt-J to draw a massive audience that was less loud-mouthed bro-downers and screaming teenagers than 20-somethings dancing elegantly on every spare piece of Fillmore floor – and stairway, to security’s dismay – was a pleasant surprise last night. But 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. Watching a sold-out (4,000-plus) Fillmore, full of young (and, I think, more than half female) and enthusiastic concertgoers, bounce, hands in the air like it was a Wiz Khalifa show, to such intellectually entrancing music was somewhat of a revelation.
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 (albeit in half-time) and post-2000 Radiohead with the dreamy atmospherics of Sigur Ros and the whiteboy 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 is a whiff of surprisingly amateurish engineering, and a lingering sense of pandering. But from the first notes of the Alt-J’s sold-out performance at the Fillmore, something profound seemed to move both band and writhing audience: the aforementioned descending grooves and polyrhythms reminiscent 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, not unlike the intro to Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” to create something so appealing – yet, quixotically, somewhat dolorous – 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 bandmates 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 like an upbeat hiphop band was on display.
Earlier this year at the Ogden, I was struck by how Talking Heads-like the aerobic stage presence and upbeat, cerebral music of Foals was, but (more in concert than on record) Alt-J also takes a page from Byrne & Co.’s heyday 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. As on “Bloodflood, Pt. II,” slow was funky and love was more than a little mad.