A young band that’s still learning the game, Alt-J was way ahead going into the Varsity Theater on Monday night.
After playing to a packed house last fall in its Twin Cities debut at the smaller Triple Rock, the collegiate British buzz band sold out this mid-size venue months ago — then announced another local gig at the twice-bigger First Avenue in September. That show also sold out, so the group booked a second night. Tickets are gone for that one, too.
Not bad for a band that’s hated by half the people who hear it. The contempt for Alt-J is largely due to singer/guitarist Joe Newman’s unconventional singing style, a sort of a noseplug-muted warble that’s distinctive but highly distracting.
It’s not really fair to judge Monday’s concert based on the opinion of naysayers who weren’t there, nor on the horse-before-the-cart hype that led to those First Ave shows. So let’s just say the cart was too big for the pony.
Alt-J has a lot of nifty, art-schooled musical ideas — like its vaguely Middle Eastern and Afropoppy harmonies, and the abrupt time changes and moody noodling that have earned it Radiohead comparisons. At Monday’s show, though, the quartet didn’t expand on any of those traits or add much gusto to the mix.
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke looks like Mick Jagger compared to the largely immobile Newman, who kept both his guitar and his personality tight to his chest and let keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton handle the little bit of between-song banter. Physically, Alt-J might be the pipsqueakiest dormitory-beloved band since the Dead Milkmen, and musically it sounded wimpy, too.
The hour-long set mostly showcased the group’s lone album, “An Awesome Wave” — winner of England’s trendy Mercury Prize — without any flourishes or ferocity. Its frazzled, overplayed 89.3 the Current hit “Fitzpleasure” especially sounded rote and underwhelming in the first half.
At least one variation from the record was hearing fans sing along to the two songs in which Newman’s singing is actually understandable: “Matilda” mid-show and “Breezeblocks” just before the encore, the latter being the clear fan favorite of the night.
The band did throw in two cover tunes near the end for added measure: “A Real Hero” by French electronic musician College, and a clever mash-up of Kylie Minogue and Dr. Dre snippets that Alt-J has dubbed “Slow Dre.” Sounds fun, right? Even that one came off as sluggish and dour.
Before we go accusing the hyper-hyping British press of overselling yet another band, perhaps Alt-J has simply lost some of the spark witnessed early on by U.K. scenesters. The quartet has been playing the same set every night for a year, so maybe it’s just growing stiff.
If that’s the case, though, it certainly doesn’t bode well for that two-night stand five months from now.