Alt-J: Revenge of the Nerds

Critics love to hate Alt-J. They and their music have been called fussy and uptight; beige, tuneless, mild, featureless, and boring; lead singer Joe Newman has been compared to “a mean-spirited hobbit mocking the singing voice of another hobbit,” adenoidal, and poseur-ish. And what other band can claim an affectionate parody viral video created by two kids eating rice crackers and writing their own Alt-J song called In My Butt?

So be it. But it’s hard to argue with success, which, judging by the amped-up and surprisingly age-diverse crowd at the sold-out Salle Wilfred-Pelletier last night, these British indie-rockers have in abundance (not to mention their sky-high record sales and youtube view numbers).

The evening wasn’t so much a concert as an immersive sound and light show. The three musicians were lined up across the stage: Augustus Unger-Hamilton on keyboards, Joe Newman on guitar and lead vocals, and Thomas Green on drums, each framed and separated by columns of lights. A shout-out to the light engineers who really went all-out, expertly syncing some really cool effects to the beat-intense music.

The band played all of their big hits from all three albums, including Hunger of the Pine, Every Other Freckle, Matilda, Bloodflood, Nara, and, towards the end when everyone couldn’t wait any longer, Tesselate and Fitzpleasure. They came back for three encores: Left Hand Free, In Cold Blood, and finally Breezeblocks.

And honestly, I think the critics have to chill the f*ck out. Sure it’s a little weird to hear 3000 people mumble-singing along to lyrics like “hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks,” or “Tralala, in your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure.” And critics have had at it with the arcane lyrics but it doesn’t take much effort to discover that Alt-J’s songs often reference real-life historical events as well as fiction (a love-triangle gone wrong in Breezeblocks, the gang-rape and death involving a broom of a prostitute named Tralala from Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn in Fitzpleasure). The audience was on its feet from the first note to the last. The band was tight, the music loud, the light show awesome: what’s not to love?

Opening act Drama also reaped the love. From Chicago, Na’el Shehade and Via Rosa put on a memorable and infectiously soulful electronic/dance set. With lyrics dealing primarily with love and all of its disastrous effects and after-effects, combined with great beats and made-in-heaven stage chemistry, the sad/happy/power vibe created by the duo worked really well. These two are definitely worth checking out and keeping an eye on.

Alt-J plays July 2-3 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place-des-Arts at 7:30. Arrive early as security is tight. Tickets here.