After an almost flawless and captivating hour-long set Monday night at the 9:30 Club, British quartet Alt-J remain as compelling and mysterious as they were before they took the stage. With a brief but friendly acknowledgement to the audience, who responded with a roar, the band began on the sparse, elegant stage with the lead song, "Intro" from their debut album An Awesome Wave. It was followed by "Interlude (Ripe & Ruin)," which they performed, as on the album, almost entirely a capella.
With few exceptions, the setlist followed the album track list -- the high lonesome vocals from “Interlude” transitioned quickly into the sexy bass line and huskier vocals of "Tessellate,” and the adoring audience reacted by shifting from a gentle undulation to a less subtle grind. Just as the crowd found the rhythm of that track, the band skipped “Breezeblocks,” reserving it for later, and launched into "Something Good." The live setting emphasized the slightly western feeling of the song, with a spare tap of a snare drum leading in a galloping guitar and a waterfall of keyboards.
The transition from "Something Good" to "Dissolve Me" emphasized the range of musical influences of the band. While the first evokes the mysteries of a Western plains night, the second adds a steel drum effect, giving the sound a Caribbean or African accent. The adjustment of tempo roused the audience to a certain degree, as the sea of bodies in the packed house shifted from gentle waves to an all-out celebratory shimmy by the time the final synth dropped in Dissolve.
When the first "Tra-la-la"s of "Fitzpleasure" rang out the crowd roared its approval, but it was the bass line, sending reverberations through the building and through the crowd, that had an even bigger impact. The loudest recognition of the evening came for "Matilda," which despite being introduced as "a little quieter" caused a sing-along outbreak that filled the 9:30 Club with waving arms and united voices.
The main set ended on "Breezeblocks," but after a very short break lead singer Joe Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton returned with "Handmade." Reserving the fullest incarnation of any song on the album for last, the rest of the band came back on stage to end the show with "Taro,” a song seeped in guitar layers and vocals evocative of India and South-East Asia. The song adds yet another international flavor to An Awesome Wave, and live it maintained those elements even as the crowd was chanting the inexplicably compelling lyric “Do not spray into eyes, I have sprayed you into my eyes…”
One of the band's hallmarks is the curious vocals of lead singer Joe Newman, who took the stage in a 9:30 club t-shirt and an almost boyish grin. On the debut album, his voice is border-line cartoonish on some tracks, and sounds as if he’s warbling through a mouth full of marbles on others; sometimes the effect is as though he’s singing through a fan. Delivered live, Newman’s voice lost none of these nuances, and he never appeared affected or as if he were striving for a certain sound. Without any visible means of altering his vocals, the mystery of how he pulls of that sound remains.
The band closely recreated the album note by note, matching the pacing and vocal nuances as well as making only minor changes to the track order. They included “Buffalo” midway through, a track which appears on the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack, but added no covers to pad the set, and barely spoke to the audience at all Speaking duties were mainly handled by keyboardist Unger-Hamilton, and while his approach was open and friendly, most of his song introductions provided no insight into either the song or the band. The only reference to anything other than what was going on immediately on stage was to recall their previous visit to D.C. in September, when they played the Rock & Roll Hotel. While he didn't exactly express it, it was clear to everyone that the rise from Rock & Roll Hotel to a completely sold out 9:30 Club had happened quickly for all.
So, the mystery remains - who is Alt-J? Can they continue on this streak of distinct, inventive, and completely engrossing songs? Or is it all a gimmick anchored by Newman's distinct vocals and a series of enigmatic lyrics? The band took five years to craft Wave so we may have to wait quite a while to find out, but the simple, precise, thoroughly enjoyable show at the 9:30 Club is only driving our curiosity to learn more about the future of this band regardless of the answer.