You can almost judge the success of a new band by the diversity of their audience. Any new band, for example, with the mental dexterity to found a soundcloud and have found themselves upon the pages of a couple of blogs will be presented with miserable looking hipsters wearing their ‘vintage’ shirts which smell suspiciously of mouldy tents. It is clear, however, that alt-J have truly captured the minds of the nation’s music fans with their brilliantly eccentric debut album An Awesome Wave, and as a result the sold-out crush before them is made up of overexcited teenage fan girls, goths stuffed to the gills with hallucinogenics, and even respectable men with their polo shirts tucked into the M&S chinos that their wives bought them for Christmas.
Before alt-J appear, though, the already crowded room is treated to the emotionless live performance of Cave Painting. We have written some very enthusiastic things about Cave Painting before and we stick with everything we’ve said; musically they are very impressive, and there’s no denying the tender emotional bombardment that is “So Calm”. But they go about their business with a ruthless, machine-like precision that is one step away from arrogance, and a few past passionless. This detached atmosphere strips their undeniably accomplished music of any of its credibility, and songs that seemed full of warmth and character online now seem flat and vacuous. Things could be far more disastrous though; at least the songs they’re playing are decent and all we’ve described above could have just been an off night, but it simply felt like an aesthetically pleasing CD player would have done a far better job.
The contrast between them and alt-J could not be starker. Every note they squeeze from their instruments is dripping with sincerity, and they seem genuinely overwhelmed by the size and intensity of the crowd. Lead-singer Joe Newman even seems visibly nervous during the first couple of songs, letting his voice drop beneath his usually flawless falsetto. Charismatic actors they may not be, but that simply adds to their appeal as they embody an emotionally-involved humanity that the crowd had been previously starved of. Most importantly, alt-J just seem completely believable onstage, like actual real people, coming across like the nice blokes who might hold the door for you for an unreasonable amount of time in the university library.
Their job, though, is made fairly easy by the fact that they have the privilege of playing what is arguably the strongest debut album of this year. “Intro”, despite their tangible nerves, sounds bolder even more intricate than it did on record, whilst the well ordered insanity of“Breezeblocks” manages even to get all of the goths attempting something close to dancing. It is the perfect balance of theatrics and ear-splitting originality of “Fitzpleasure” that rightly draws the biggest reaction, though. It’s still the best thing that we’ve heard this year, sounding at once brutal, tender, and absolutely inspired. By this point one small sweaty black box in Bristol has lost it, and when “Taro” drops its Bollywood-inspired beats, even the chubby bloke infront of us manages to pull a girl with a suitably embarrassing Indian-inspired dance. We were always sure that their music had a transcendental quality, and now we have proof. She must have been out of her bloody mind.
alt-J have got everything that you could possibly want a band to have; not only the possibly year defining record, but a stage presence which, though not theatrical, exudes honesty and makes the whole thing seem so intensely believable. They may not have that obvious charisma of 10 Lemmys, but they’re not arrogant either, instead they just seem almost academic, with a real love of the music they’re playing, and a real appreciation of the enthusiasm of the audience. Our gigging companion was shaking and next to speechless as we left, and I’m pretty sure that the drugged-up goths hadn’t slipped him anything. Later he managed to squeeze out that it was “the best gig I’ve ever seen”, and as much as I was amused by his enthusiasm, it was hard to disagree.