Last time that we went to see Alt-J (or ∆) it was in the Victoria in Dalston, rammed to the rafters with Shoreditch types, toilets of doom and a 30 minute wait at the bar which meant we couldn’t get back into the room to see the band play. Happy days. Tonight couldn’t be any further from that. Down in the tiny basement of the Social apparently it’s 1 in 1 out upstairs, but safely rooted in front of the stage and in relative spaciousness, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. If anything it’s the band themselves who are feeling the squeeze, with the four of them plus gear on the tiny stage, drummer Thom Green’s pretty much playing in the gents at the back. Not that they let this hinder them.
After the opening number, it’s the acapella vocal harmonies between lead singer Joe Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton that leave the room hushed with expectancy, before the chords of doom that open Tessellate crash down to dispel the silence. Newman’s voice sounding soulful and forlorn as he sings about love, sex and triangles being his favourite shape…obviously. There doesn’t seem to be a rulebook for Alt-J, if it sounds interesting it seems to go in. Xylophones, castanets and tom toms are all used at various points throughout the set to add to the layers of sound. Throughout, Newman’s voice and delivery is unique, not falsetto, but sometimes heading that way and there are nods to the guitar sounds of Radiohead in their playing. Hand-made is a beautiful track which floats along with its folk roots and vocal harmonies. Flood of Blood starts minimally enough, with Newman’s vocal weaving around the swirling guitar line, before building again with Unger-Hamilton’s falsetto backing adding weight to the xylophone melody and tribal drums. With its dense bassline, jabs of la la las and Newman sounding like a bluesman from the 50s, Breezeblocks is a frenetic and triumphant end to the set. With it’s repeated line of “Please don’t go…I love you so”, it perfectly sums up how we’re feeling as the song builds to a vocal joust between Newman and Unger-Hamilton. The last couple of years haven’t been short on intelligent, earnest ‘indie’ music, but where say Wild Beasts skirt the fine line of irritating pretentiousness, Alt – J seem more accessible in their own abstractness and imagery, but no less intelligent or intriguing in their performance and sound. On this showing, they’ll certainly be heading for the upper ends of the ‘ones to watch’ lists for 2012.
With the suicide of lead singer and guitarist Billy McCarthy’s brother and being formed out of the remnants of their previous band’s implosion, you could be forgiven for thinking that a We Are Augustines set could be, well… slightly downbeat. Throw in the fact that this was the last date following a tour with overrated Scottish miserabalists, Glasvegas, and there’s our preconceptions nailed. However, We Are Augustines couldn’t be any further from the whine of their previous touring partners if they tried. With just the 3 of them on stage – McCarthy on Guitar and vocals, Eric Sanderson alternating between bass and keys and Rob Allen on Drums – they create an intense, grandiose American rock sound that, whilst full of a sense of loss and reminiscing in the storytelling, they play with a real energy and positivity that leaches into the crowd.
It always seems lazy to heap the Springsteen influence tag onto American bands, especially a band from the East coast, but it’s hard not to hear the Boss’ influence throughout their set. They’ve been likened to the Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady in that way, but We Are Augustines are certainly no copycat revivalists. Headlong into the Abyss builds and builds, the drums pummelling while the chorus is pure Sam’s Town era Killers. McCarthy throws himself around the stage, bouncing off the wall while Sanderson stands beside him beaming, singing along to every word even when not needed to provide backing vocals. Current single, Book of James sees McCarthy channelling the sound of David Byrne whilst Chapel Song is given a freedom live that isn’t so much seen on their record. It’s simple, repeated guitar riff sucks you in, whilst McCarthy, sweating and looking like he’s reliving every word that he spits out, leaves you exhausted yet entranced with the imagery of torn photographs and blue skies. With one song to go it seems destined for the rousing finish, but just as the band are ramping it up McCarthy’s amp can’t take the onslaught any longer, leaving him to sing the final half a song with just the bass and drums for accompaniment. The crowd want more, but time restraints won’t allow it. It’s not the way they or we imagined it to end, which is a shame, as standing there watching them leave the stage you’re left with the impression that they’d have been pretty good at a big ending. If you’re heading to the XFM Winter Wonderland gig in December definitely get their early to check these guys out…you won’t be disappointed.